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, 12 November 2016

"Any other mouth" by Anneliese Mackintosh (Freight Books, 2014)

30 stories (from Gutter, etc), 2-20 pages long. Most of the reviews point out the novel/story-collection, fiction/auto-biography fusion, frequently quoting the first page -

1. 68% happened.
2. 32% did not happen.
3. I will never tell.

I wasn't impressed by the first story. In "What Happens When Someone Dies Twice" things improve. Here's the main motif - "My grief is bigger than your grief ... I think you are starting to get funny about having to share a bed with my grief ... I just can't help but feel that if I could beef up your grief somehow, feed it and make it grow until it was at least five times the size - then maybe you and I could finally make love once more ... With that in mind, I've been thinking about poisoning your parents ... We could go on holiday, me and you and our respective griefs, and we could drink Sangria and hang out at the beach, maybe even learn a New Thing together, like surfing or chess or the Kama Sutra". "Crave" was better - good in fact. "Daddy Smokes" mentions the narrator's father's smoking, the scattering of his ashes and the burning of his porn cache. Here's the ending - powerful? melodramatic?

I take a walk around the garden, and, under the elderflower bush, I spot a charred, damp scrap of paper. There a naked woman and a phone number on it. The woman's face has been partially burnt odd. I kneel on the soil while I look at her, and, after several minutes, I have my first orgasm. It's shaky and lonely and filled with grief.
Then I wander down to the pond, thick with algae, to the chicken coops, overgrown with weeds, and finally to the bonfire. It's funny really - when I look at it, I can no longer tell which parts of the grey dust are porn, which are cigars, and which are my dad. But even though the smoking has stopped, I know that all of them, once, glowed red.

I thought that "When I die, this is how I want it to be" would run out of puff. It didn't and I liked it.

Some sections (e.g. "Somebody Else's Story", "These Little Rituals") don't work for me as stand-alone pieces - too schematic - though they supply back-story for the novel. Some of the weaker sections have crisp, symbolic endings. Here are 2 consecutive story's endings -

  • "I looked down at my thighs, ran my fingers over the thick black lines of my biggest tattoo: a pair of wovles [sic], standing else side of Tiw, the Anglo-Saxon god of hope and war. The ink had faded, but only a little." (p.91)
  • "I stopped running away from my reflection, and began, very carefully to run torwards [sic] it" (p.100)

"Doctors" is fast-paced, 2nd person. It was in The Best British Short Stories 2013. "The Easiest Thing I Know" is fast-paced, 2nd person. Most of the stories are easy to read, though there are exceptions - "The snow octopus who was afraid of the dark" begins with "This is a story again a snow octopus. No, it's not. It's about a shark and a football. Some swimming goggles and a diamond ring. I've a better idea. Let me start again. It was raining for fifteen years in North Korea", and "You are beautiful" has interruptions.

"A Rough Guide to grief" lives up to its title - "You might find you need to talk about the person who has died over and over again. In truth, you may become a bit of a bore ... Here's a phrase you'll hear a lot while you're grieving: it gets better. Some of your 'friends who have grieved' will delight in telling you this as often as possible. The good news for you is that you will soon have earned the right to tell this to other people, those who are just starting out on their journey. It gets better, you will say, and you will pat them on the shoulder, and then go back to your flat and cut a swearword into your shin, which is a shame, because you thought you were over that, but never mind: it gets better". It's a useful document, and works as part of the mosaic of the novel.

Throughout, there are interesting images - e.g.

I opened my laptop. Instead of looking at the screen, I watched the people out in the street for a bit, moving from the left side of the window to the right, from the right side of the window to the left. As I watched them, a tiny question popped into my mind. A tiny, persistent question, that I asked myself almost every day.
What does it feel like to be normal?
Finally, I looked at the computer screen. Perhaps I could become addicted to a new game

I liked "Google Maps Saved My Life", though it's small scale.

Towards the end of "Possible subject for a future novel" she writes "I stop thinking about her life, and I think about my own. Not everything I do has to be a possible subject for a future novel. I don't have to fall in love with nasty acts because they make great sentences". I think she has a point. "Butterflies" mentions in passing a suicidal sister. Other sections mention such a sister too. It's an easy way to ramp up the emotional impact, and were this a story collection it might be considered an over-used trick. "Butterflies" also has a father about to die while a mother is online-dating - i.e., the volume dial's set to 11.

So, an entertaining read with a few good stories and an informative handout about grief.

Other reviews

  • Doug Johnstone (What a fresh and original book this is ... There are echoes of Lorrie Moore, Amy Hempel and Miranda July throughout ... The finest stories here are also the most inventive. In “A Rough Guide to Grief” Mackintosh takes the self-help template and twists it into new, scary shapes, while in “Doctors” she takes the reader on a terrifying journey into mental breakdown via a potted summary of a disastrous PhD. ... “This Could Happen To Us”, Gretchen, in the first flush of love, dreams of a future life with her damaged boyfriend. It’s one of the saddest yet most uplifting things I’ve read in ages and it made me cry. Mackintosh is a real talent and Any Other Mouth is a remarkable debut.)
  • Gutter (Upon reading three stories in a row, the characters’ voices, vocabulary and worldviews seem exceptionally similar to one another. The plots, too, are made up of different moments in what seems to be a single life.)
  • Nija Dalal (They are written well and clearly; they are indeed easy stories to read. But they are not easy stories to feel.)
  • subtlemelodrama

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