Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

"365 stories" by James Robertson (Penguin 2014)

When I read a Flash collection by a Flash specialist I often wonder about the value of printing the less good pieces, but market forces dictate that prose books can't be too short. This collection has 365 pieces, the Quality Control put until extra pressure by the constraints that one piece had to be produced each day in 2013, and that the pieces had to be 365 words long (i.e. padding becomes a risk). When I read a poetry collection and sense that there's a sequence of sub-par poems, I often wonder whether it's me having an off day. But in this book, it's just as likely that the writer was having an off week or two. So was I grumpy on Sunday morning, 26th April 2015, or was he off-form in January 2013? I think he gets into his stride in mid-March (6th, 7th, 10th, 12th, 18th, 28th, 30th). I liked April 22-24th; May 7th, 8th, 27th; June 12th, 13th, 16th, 17th (my favourite so far), 20th; July 3rd, 6th, 14th, 23rd; Sep 14th, 16th; Nov 9th; Dec 6th, 11th.

The trend is towards essay, away from verbally individualistic Points-of-View. All the stories can be read in isolation though August in particular has some story sequences, and there are recurring characters and situations. Common themes/details include City vs Countryside, paths, public transport, being alone vs being with others, having an old father ("Like museum curators manoeuvring a bulky exhibit on loan from some other museum, we get him indoors and into his chair - the one without wheels", Oct 19th), Death personified, retold myths, Jack, long walks, midges, cynical politics, religion. There's little lingering description. There is some overt linguistic play - Sep 4th is in something like rhyming couplets - it begins with "I was riding on a Greyhound bus, seeking some place to hide. I slept and when I woke there was a stranger by my side", May 8th is an N+7 piece, and Sep 21st has many puns, and Dec 27th is stuffed with archetypes. There may well be other devices that I missed.

The reasons for the stories not succeeding are less various. Sometimes (as with the ship-repair/continuity symbolism on Jan 12th) an overused idea (one I wouldn't dare use nowadays, even in passing) is used to prop up a story. In stories like on Jun 20th a decent enough idea comes to an innocuous end either because 365 words is too much or too little. And stories like the Jul 16th one simply don't have enough. But if an author paints himself into a corner where stories and even words can't be edited away, what do you expect? Of course, the book could have been shorter, but the format is more a marketing than literary device. By the end I'm not without admiration of the project as a whole for its width more than its depth, a width than could only have been demonstrated by a thick tome. Events like NaNoWriMo and its kin generate many bodies of work produced by quotas. I doubt whether many of those have as much sustained variety as this, even if there are few peaks. Of the story types I think I liked the "Jack" ones best. They could have been collected into a single booklet.

I wonder if all the reviewers are familiar with Flash or [Formalist] micro-fiction. 365 words is quite a generous limit, and except for one or two stories I didn't feel any sense of the language being under pressure.

Other reviews

  • Jane Housham (Guardian) (Almost sonnet-like, the content chafes against the restrictions of length, yet such a brief burst of words can please with its neatness)
  • Stewart Kelly (Scotsman) (There are precedents for such an undertaking. Anthropology by Dan Rhodes features 101 stories of 101 words. Robert Shearman is currently completing a series of 100 stories, each of which ends with a choice for the reader about which story to read next, with only one path which will touch on each story once and only once. ... There are stories in almost every genre)
  • Robert Collins (Financial Times) (as you might expect of a writer following his daily whim over the course of a year, there’s a huge range to the style and tone of the stories. Many reprise themes from his previous novels)
  • Sinead Gleeson (Irish Times) (in tone and form Robertson’s imagination runs amok)

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