The short story collection has been a stalwart of British literature since Chaucer bundled together a volume of stories about pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. Publishers used to respect the form but today any agent worth their salt would advise Chaucer to remove any reference to his work being a collection and pitch it firmly as a novel – The Canterbury Quest perhaps? The big publishers once nurtured short fiction writers, investing in long-term and lucrative literary partnerships, think of Roald Dahl, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, and Ian McEwan. This is no longer the case; a writer must have had a few well-performing novels or a major prize listing behind them before a publisher will consent to a collection and even then the groans can be heard throughout the land. Given the success of various collections in disguise, Olive Kitteridge, A Visit From The Goon Squad, Cloud Atlas, I don’t buy the ‘collections don’t sell’ line. I think it’s an invalid excuse, an admission of poor marketing skills. The fact is you can easily sell a collection if it’s marketed like a potential best-seller. Modern short fiction seems ideally suited to the zeitgeist of short attention spans and desperate need for concise answers.
It’s not all doom and gloom, short story writers are thriving and, like all practitioners of under-represented art-forms, are finding a way through the short-sightedness of mainstream publishing. In the current climate the short story heroes are the small presses, the people who mail out lovingly produced short run paperbacks from their kitchen tables. One such press is Cultured Llama. The headline statement on their website is,
Cultured Llama was born in a converted stable. This creature of humble birth drank greedily from the creative source of the poets, writers, artists and musicians that visited, and soon the llama fulfilled the destiny of its given name.
Cultured Llama Publishing aspires to quality from the first creative thought through to the finished product.
Since their inception in 2011, they have published a dozen short story collections from the likes of Alison Lock, Frances Gapper, Maggie Harris and Jonathan Pinnock. They were kind enough to send me a copy of one of their newest titles, Unusual Places by Louise Tondeur. Unusual Places begins with the foreword;
Grandma’s stories, ‘…would always start in the place where we were,’
Which illustrates perfectly the ability of short stories to connect us with a collective past and continuously add to it in the present. Tondeur’s short stories are very much in the oral tradition, they are made to be read aloud, shared around campfires and over warm drinks at Grandma’s fireside. This is not to say that they are old fashioned, far from it, they fizz with modern morality and the normalisation of previously silenced voices.
The first story, A Professional Picnicker Meets Her True Love, sets out the book’s cornucopic style on a chequered blanket in the park. We are first treated to the musings of the titular picnicker, travelling London’s parks and green spaces, watching the world go by, sampling portable foodstuffs with relish, slowing the world right down to observe those close by, the environment, the weather. The pace is deliciously languid like travelling downstream on a summer’s day, your hand trailing the water. Suddenly the pace speeds, sex is had with a stranger under a willow tree after a chase involving a blue plastic bag, the couple move into a four bedroom (if you count the box room) end terrace and have four kids in the space of a couple of pages. The story then switches to Enid Fancy who tests the quality of blue plastic bags in a factory in Wanstead, then again to Raz Sadagni, a Stratford shopkeeper with a new box of plastic bags. Tondeur connects everything through the motif of the blue plastic bag, it’s a very cinematic device, and with it she is showing us how it’s the little things that are immeasurably important, you just have to look closely to see the connection. ‘Only connect,’ as EM Forster eloquently put it.
Tondeur is writing from the heart and letting her imagination form the stories in a way that sometimes resembles automatic writing. You can feel the bravery behind the composition, a willingness to let her thoughts take her to whatever place they choose. She even refers to it several times within the text like here, when a character, head turned by a beautiful librarian, types random descriptive words into a computer in the British Library,
‘Green, I typed, woman, dress, fire, hair, postcard.’
Going on to state,
‘All her stories exploded out of her in a thousand different directions.’
Tondeur could be describing her own style here, ideas pinball off each other, inviting us to experience the world we normally rush through in a more discerning fashion, to stray from the direct path of A-B, with the promise of a deeper connection.
‘The thought is fleeting. It looks like a crow taking off from a branch inside my head. One minute it’s there, then it’s flown away. Or maybe it looks like a pair of crows mating on a top branch of a tree on a cold grey day in February. Or maybe it isn’t a pair of cows mating after all, it is a black plastic bag caught in a tree, or a blue one in silhouette…’
Myth was that men thought about sex every seven seconds, women slightly less. Clinical research has since debunked this myth but it’s still a lot. Unusual Places brings this preoccupation to the fore – but in in a salacious, exploitative way but in a matter of fact, normalizing way. There are many sexual encounters, beginning with the al-fresco coupling of the professional picnicker. In The First Time a grieving widower with a Banaman erection visits a prostitute for the first time; it’s a touching tale full of melancholy and absence,
‘I think about the weirdness of two strangers about to have sex, two people whose lives are crossing in that moment because of all the messed up things that have happened to bring them to this point.’
It is the ultimate in fleeting connection and Tondeur doesn’t shy away from describing the act, here or anywhere else in the book, but she explores the tiny sad details as she’s documenting, the frayed bra strap, the yellowing teeth and she juxtaposes it with the stricken man talking about the first time he met his wife.
If Unusual Places gives sexual acts an everyday authenticity so by extension does its treatment of gender and sexuality. There are few absolutes in Tondeur’s worlds. Several of the stories feature protagonists whose gender is not explicitly confirmed, either because the story is told in first or second person, and the narrator is simply ‘I’ (or you) or because no defining pronoun is mentioned. Sometimes this is resolved for the reader and sometimes not. It is immensely satisfying to read a book which deliberately plays with our expectations of gender and sexuality. The reader becomes a part of the book, stepping into the shoes of the protagonist, assigning meaning not laid out in unquestionable terms. One of the stand-out stories, Fragments Found in a Tunnel, invites us to place ourselves in a future London courtesy of a second person narration. A post-apocalyptic underground, is littered with the remains of those trying to escape a capital which has become a prison. The story is one of the more fantastical in the collection but even in her realist efforts, there is a touch of the magical, of the predestined, a Jungian collective unconscious waiting for the perfect trigger to open a window onto a spiritual world that defies explanation, or the mind playing tricks – depending, as ever, on how you look at it.
Tondeur calls her technique ‘live writing’, that is going to the place you are writing about and really observing, often spending hours, sometimes days writing notes and fragments inspired by your surroundings until a story begins to form. It results in a work of precise detail and some readers may lose patience with the sometimes list-like descriptions but it is in the minutiae that the universal is seen. In Unusual Places tiny details combine, altering our perceptions and pre-conceived ideas, demanding of us the ability to see the bigger picture.
Erinna Mettler’s first novel, Starlings, was published in 2011 by Revenge Ink. Erinna is a founder and co-director of the spoken word collective Rattle Tales and the newly established Brighton Prize, the city’s only short story competition. Her stories have been shortlisted forThe Bristol Prize and The Writers & Artists Yearbook Arvon Award. Erinna has an MA (dist) in Creative Writing from The University of Sussex. Her stories and poems have been published internationally. Her collection Fifteen Minutes of Fame was recently published by Unbound Book.
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