Adventures in Writing and Reading (An Occasional Series), Part 5
HARI KUNZRU: ‘Gods Without Men’ and various short stories at harikunzru.com
The first thing I read by Hari Kunzru was a short story on the Guardian website called ‘The Maestro’s Loss.’ From there I checked out his website and found more shorts – including ‘The Culture House’ – and then I went to the book shop and searched out his latest novel ‘Gods Without Men,’ where an enthusiastic lady in the shop told me it was, “very good, very strange.” I realised that I was using short stories just like singles by bands, trying out shorter works before I went looking for the album. Two things to note – one) the web is good for short stories, whilst I wouldn’t want to read a novel online a short story is just the right length and, if you are a short story writer who also writes novels, can be a good way to draw in new readers, two) I like the way Hari uses his blog to add more to his stories, recently posting a mixtape of music which informed ‘Gods Without Men’.
Whilst I found ‘Gods Without Men’ absorbing and full of life, I did think it was a little too sprawling, indeed some parts of it stand better as short pieces in their own right. And having read some of Hari Kunzru’s short stories, I think I prefer his writing in this form. ‘The Culture House’ is a good example of his style, a story which harnesses madness and violence well and grabs the reader by the lapels, Kunzru is really good at quickly establishing a new set-up, revealing more and more information as he tells the story instead of setting the scene and then getting on with the plot. If there is an overarching theme to his work perhaps it is of people trying to create something in order to find their place in the world – in ‘Gods Without Men’ the power of music is harnassed in an attempt to make contact with space beings, in ‘The Culture House,’ the artist Nicky uses his position to rage against the establishment. I suppose that this idea of creating something lasting, and making a mark, is an underlying theme in all writing, or even all creative work. Or something, or something else. And…
JON MCGREGOR: ‘This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You’
A new book by Jon McGregor is always something to be excited about – since his debut novel ‘If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things’ he has been one of my favourite authors. ‘If Nobody Speaks…’ was given to me as a birthday present seven years ago and I devoured it over a few days whilst on holiday in Barcelona. I was less impressed by the follow-up ‘So Many Ways To Begin’ but was pleased to see him return to form with ‘Even The Dogs.’ As both the title of his debut and that of this new collection suggest, McGregor deals in observing the mundane and reporting events to show that they are more noteworthy than they may appear.
After three novels, ‘This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing…’ is his first set of short stories. In this collection McGregor has wandered into more playful structures – there are some longer pieces which resemble his longer works in style, as well as some odd post-apocalyptic pieces in the style of reports so that they barely seem like stories, and some super-short pieces including a two-line poem about Grimsby which would seem flippant were it not for the fact that it fits in as part of the topography of the book. The stories wind themselves around various locations in the East of England – Lincolnshire, Norfolk, up as far as Tameside – and whilst the stories may be divorced from another and not follow on in any way, they feel connected by place so that what builds is more like a survey of an area created in fiction. Whilst he still focusses on the experience of the human beings at the centre of his tales, he now brings in the geography of the East almost as another character, there are countless references to long, flat roads, to fields and to the sky. And whilst I didn’t enjoy these stories as much as his novels, I did like the way it was possible to see him doing something different, trying out different mechanics. I look forward to his next novel.
JUDITH SCHALANSKY: ‘Atlas Of Remote Islands’
Slightly tenuous link from Jon McGregor’s mapping of the East of England, to Judith Schalansky’s Atlas Of Remote Islands which I’m not even sure count as short stories but I’m going to treat them as such anyway. This is a beautifully put together book comprising maps of obscure islands and some facts about each one – when it was discovered, how many people live there, etc. These are accompanied by a short tale based on facts uncovered from various journals and other sources but written completely from the writer’s own imagination. In a way this is completely the opposite of McGregor’s work. Whereas he describes his homeland with great authenticity, clearly knowing exactly what the place feels like, Schalansky conjures up a scattershot of globetrotting dreams based on things she’s read. I think both approaches work.
These are not stories to make you want to actually visit the place, but to explore what could happen in such an environment. Most of the islands described are small and stranded in the middle of vast oceans, their lives and that of their people are precarious and vulnerable as a result of their geography and their relationship with the sea. In each case there is a feeling that what makes the islands unique is their complete isolation from other communities.
I’ve always felt discouraged from writing about real people or places as I worry that I would miss out or misplace or misremember some vital detail that would either annoy or confuse people who get annoyed or confused about such thing, but Schalansky carries off this project with such charm that these destinations become more like playgrounds for her imagination and thus the details cease to matter.