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, 25 May 2022

"Reverse Engineering" by Tom Conaghan (ed) (Scratch Books, 2022)

Each story is followed by an interview with the writer conducted by Tom Conaghan (whose words are in bold below). Some of the stories are years old, so the writers have a chance to comment on their earlier selves and their subsequent development.

  • The Crossing (Chris Power) - I wasn't keen on the story - too short-storyish. So the point of the older couple they meet is that Ann has a glimpse of the couple she and Jim could become? But how old are Ann and Jim? Ann's fantasy/dream about the stepping stones was the main turn-off. The discussion raises some useful issues -
    • "It was a much more allegorical story to begin with ... I found that it really generated more of the kind of power or energy I wanted when I moved it towards realism" (p.26)
    • "I found that when I write from reality it often takes me a while to work out what is really relevant to the story and what I should let go of. I think it's natural to want to keep certain things in early drafts simply because they're things that really happened" (p.27)
    • "Typically when I write a story the themes become apparent later on: then I edit towards or away from them - that is to say, amplify or somehow disguise them - as suits the story" (p.28)
    I'm often faced with the situation mentioned in that final point. Some of the other authors also mention the issue of how explicit the artifice/theme should be.
  • Mrs Fox (Sarah Hall) - I've liked this story for a while. The discussion helped me realise why - how the relationship in the story is analogous to any where a partner somehow leaves/changes - death, dementia, growing apart, etc. There's much realism in the piece, but wouldn't any man panic more? And what about her relatives? The voice is sometimes his, sometimes detached, allowing control of reader expectation. "And he knows ... it is he who is not adjusting; he who is failing their relationship". She in the past has been unfaithful so he's forgiven her before. "He returns to work. He is polite and, to new workers in the office, sullen-seeming. Those who know him, those who met his wife, understand some vital spark has been extinguished". Why the purple ball? Do people keep such items on them?
    • "I wrote that last sentence, and thought right, what's my next sentence and realised actually that's it, that's the ending. This has happened to me a number of times; I'll mentally overshoot the ending" (p.60)
    • "he does mention his love in many ways ... Has he let her go? Is that a form of love?" (p.62)
    • "The theme of control and taming and ownership crops up often in the language, which led me to dislike [the husband] for being so slow to recalibrate his relationship ... Part of me admires his loyalty but he did not understand her initially which is one of those things that make people change and disappear" (p.62)
    See "Mrs Fox" by Sarah Hall - compromised genres for more.
  • The First Punch (Jon McGregor) - It's ok. He's good at describing slo-mo action. The plot's predictable though - if the protagonist had slept with the woman, there wouldn't be much of a story. Again, issues of Realism and detail arise -
    • "It's eerie that the protagonist is out walking with this guy ... I would have thought he would be more wary. Nor do I fully believe her courting of this 'pretty' forty-year-old ... At this stage of my writing I was really interested in images and moods and sensation and feeling and not so interested in character and motivation and plot and logic" (p.84)
    • "my younger self was a big fan of ambiguity and I think Chris Power has won me round to the idea that ambiguity is an excuse for vagueness" (p.86)
    • "would too much reality pop the bubble the story exists in?" (p.87)
  • Hair (Mahreen Sohail) - Hair is a conscious theme, making the piece sound over-schematic - hair being mentioned as much as possible to make several points. The multi-PoV means that parents' thoughts can provide contrast.
    • "your writing appeared to become aware of itself, in sentences like: 'Feels herself rising to the middle of this story.' ... We seem to be really into smoke and mirrors and tricks and stuff but there's something really powerful about stating something as it is" (p.103)
    • "You said also you overshot with the ending in one draft" (p.108)
  • Theophrastus and the Dancing Plague (Jessie Greengrass) - A tale without dialogue about a wandering mystic, based on fact.
    • "He used to think that all was mirror and if he knew the world he'd know man and knowing man he'd know God's mind and medicine; but lately the sight of a candle through a window makes him feel sad" (p.112)
    • "he is not an empathetic man, lacking the capacity to understand except through experience. To imagine the lives of others would demand perhaps too deep a plumbing of himself" (p.115)
    • "since he cannot admit to having made a mistake he must incorporate everything he has ever thought, everything he has ever asserted to be the case, into his taxonomy" (p.115)
    At the end he begins to understand why people with no hope might endlessly dance. The author's comments added little that I couldn't have guessed
  • Filamo (Irenosen Okojie) - I didn't like or understand the piece. The author's notes didn't help either, but explaining surrealism isn't easy. Here's the start - "The last monk told the tongue that holding a naked sheep's head underwater would undo it all" (p.129)
  • The Flier (Joseph O'Neill) - A father, late thirties, finds he can fly. He and his wife Viki break the news to friends Pam and Becky. It's suggested that he gets insurance. He has an interview about it. He goes to work for a meeting. Then Pam turns up at their flat to say that Becky has battered her and may be hunting for her with a gun. Becky manages to enter their block. There's a discussion about theology. The man starts levitating, then Viki's sister visits, calls the police and Becky is arrested. The final paragraph jumps 7 years. He's lost his special power. I don't get the final sentence.
    I'd have liked the author to have been queried more deeply. The story was in "The New Yorker". What's the theology for? Is Viki's sister needed? What's the point of the work meeting? I think I've missed something.

Other reviews

  • Ben East
  • Eoghan Smith (McGregor’s self-analysis of the failures within his own story is probably the most interesting contribution to Reverse Engineering, for here is a highly accomplished writer who offers a genuinely honest appraisal of his own work and finds it lacking. ... [O'Neill's] answers are so poor that the book ends on a flat, disappointing note, and the reader might well have been better served if a writer had been found to engage more constructively with the project. )

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