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.

Saturday 13 August 2016

"Light box" by K.J. Orr (Daunt Books, 2016)

The list of blurbers is like a UK short-story hall of fame - Constantine, Hershman, Gebbie, Colin Barrett, Alison MacLeod, Adam Marek, Tessa Hadley, etc. There are 11 stories from the Dublin Review, the White Review, the Sunday Times magazine, the BBC National short story award short list, etc. Settings include Argentina, USA. UK, Japan. Main characters (male and female) range from children to old men.

  • The Lake Shore Limited - I've read this before. I can see how it's influenced a story I've written ("The Delay"). A man on a long train journey gets talked to by an older woman. Only at the end do we know why he's on the train.
  • By the Canal - A newly met couple find a dying dog. The male kills it. The female leaves him. I found the ending too open and easy.
  • Disappearances - A retired, rich plastic surgeon starts a new habit of spending mornings in a cafe, not wanting to be known. But some female ex-clients of his spoil things by revealing his identity. At the end we're told about the appearance of the waitress, as if it mattered to the man. She's scarred, and this is Argentina during a military regime, and her father was perhaps killed.
  • The Human Circadian Pacemaker - An interesting idea (a returned astronaut has dementia-like problems), and I like the change of setting at the end. But there's little clue that there ever was any closeness between the 2 main characters. The ending (as other stories') avoids the obvious, but this time achieves something positive too.
  • Rehearsal Room - A different kind of story, with repetition of "room", "space", "love", "realise", "seem to". At the end there's a surprising act of violence that causes a life-change.
  • The inland Sea - 21 pages. 2 young brothers cross a frozen lake that before long will join the ocean. There's rivalry, a hailstorm, memories of a visiting scientist who says that unique species live in the lake.
  • Still Life - 5.5 pages. A father looks after a teenage daughter who has become progressively more tired and numb until now she spends most of her time in bed.
  • Blackout - Two boys have eye problems and become friends as a consequence of the eye clinic. One of them has visions and kills himself at 15 when the boys were no longer friends. The survivor (who sometimes saw halos) felt guilt that he refused his friendship (or plea for help). At 25 he moved from the UK to New York. The story begins in a New York eye clinic when he's 40 and knows that he'll soon go blind. He recalls the Manhattan power-cuts and subsequent blackouts. He knows that he'll have to re-discover the world through touch. When he was young, his mother blindfolded him and made him find his way around, so he's ready.
  • The Shallows - A girl recalls her first periods. She recalls the embarrassment of being on a beach, being seen. She recalls observing a little boy there, 2 pretty girls, a man in a tight swimsuit, and an old topless lady. The man rushes in the water towards the boy. There are hints early in the story that the boy drowned.
  • The island - A young couple, holidaying in a hot place, end up alone on a little island. Perhaps they're stranded. The man kills a fish in front of the woman.
  • The Ice Cream Song is Strange - Morris, a businessman (never married but many affairs. Ex UK, now living in NY) goes to a hotel in Japan for a holiday, making the most of the facilities that on business trips he lacked the time to exploit. He loses consciousness in the sauna. He feels he's getting old. He wonders if he has a son, imagines what he'd be like.

Those are the bare facts of the plots. The interesting features lie elsewhere: in the tone, the glancing blows. In general,

  • She doesn't often zoom in meticulously on detail.
  • Much is made of presenting the information in non-chronological order. It works well. She flicks (in chunks as small as a paragraph) between time-lines. Tense changes are significant. There's some flash-forwarding too. "Blackout" ends with paragraphs that begin "He will try", "He will need", "He will remember". "The Shallows" contains "Years later, she would try to describe ...".
  • People deal calmly with the changed circumstances brought upon by illness. They like to have self-control, they like to prepare.
  • After a crisis, the characters flee, become inexpressive, or the story ends. In common with several of the main characters, the main character in "The Ice Cream Song is Strange" thinks "that maybe if he keeps his mouth shut for long enough his brain will re-programme"
  • There's more than an average amount of swimming underwater.
  • Strangers are significant. In "The island" and "The Ice Cream Song is Strange" the character's life may depend (or may have depended) on a stranger. In some of the other stories, the actions of a stranger cause facts about the main character to be revealed.
  • Though she may hint at a vital topic early in a story, explicit information is often withheld until late.
  • The endings often are meticulously ambiguous, even when new information is imparted not long before.

I'd have been happy to have written nearly all of them.

Other reviews

  • Sarah Gilmartin (As well as momentous change, the need to escape is a recurring theme)
  • Rupert Dastur (the short stories in Light Box revolve around the universal difficulties of loss, illness, and estrangement.)
  • Valerie O’Riordan (Orr’s stories focus on moments of inconclusivity; her characters grapple with a moment, or with the memory of a moment, or with a situation that they can’t, or won’t, process, and the stories, then, play out a snapshot of that struggle without offering much, or anything, in the way of resolution. ... Not all the pieces are equally successful, of course – the shorter ones (‘Rehearsal Room’, ‘Still Life’) felt as if the writer was attempting particular effects rather than fully drawing out an imagined world, and there was a consistent lack of levity that felt (to us, anyway) a little relentless.)

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