Recently in the Guardian Joanna Walsh recalled how small presses are taking the initiative to publish and circulate more translated fiction around the UK and in the English language. As a language student and avid reader, this was inevitably something I found both pleasing and encouraging and which stoked my curiosity in finding out about these small presses. Walsh cites a few in her article, such as And Other Stories, Peirene Press or Dalkey Archive, but another small indie press which works with translated fiction is Comma Press based just on the other side of the M62 to myself in Manchester. Comma deal with a form whose charms I have only recently discovered through a creative writing course – that of the short story. Director of Comma and editor the collection Parenthesis, Ra Page, claims to have “never read a novel I’ve been totally satisfied with”. So what is the beauty of the short story when compared with the novel? “The character in the short story is a lot more anonymous” says Page. “You’re only with him for five or ten minutes so your protagonist can be really, truly, down-to-the-core unpleasant. You get a lot more amoral universe, and as a result more random things happen”.
This view seems to be encapsulated in Page’s introductory chapter entitled ‘No Closure’. He expounds the view that a lot of fiction, presumably novels, are far too comfortable for readers and their plots run very calmly and predictably to their well-rounded, harmonious happy ending. But, according to Page, this in no way reflects the complex, unpredictable mayhem which is reality and this true nature of reality should be represented in fiction. He continually refers to the ‘glitch’ which is apparently central to this anthology, the ‘glitch’ which does not allow for reality and these short stories to conclude with a rounded conclusion. It is this glitch which disturbs the reader after finishing these short stories and forces you mull over the story long after it has been put down. This, we assume, is the ‘No Closure’ that unite this anthology of short stories.
And for the most part, he is spot on. What we have in Parenthesis is a panoply of fiction linked by the stories’ thrilling modern spirit, despite being written nearly a decade ago now. This begins from the first narrative in which the protagonist, overly (?) engrossed by his discovery that he has testicular cancer, fails to realise there is a monstropolous Godzilla-like lizard rampaging through and destroying the city. The narrative voice sounds similar to that of Gregor in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, as the story is told in the first-person but we are nevertheless aligned closely with the protagonist, and the strange events of the story also remind the reader of Kafka’s masterpiece. Overall Marek’s ‘Testicular Cancer vs The Behemoth’ might been described as a fascinating study of mankind’s solipsism.
Paul Brownsey’s ‘Out There’ is written from the perspective of Roger who, after a long break in communication, receives e-mails from an old neighbour and former father-like figure ‘Uncle Jack’. Uncle Jack’s recent descent into Alzheimer’s has forced him to wonder if he might have molested Roger when he was younger, and so decides to send a series of e-mails rekindling their contact and explaining his logic and how he came to wonder such a thing. The whole story takes place through Uncle Jack’s emails and then Roger’s stream-of-consciousness responses and thus offers an intricate window into contemporary paranoia with comments on memory, childhood and Alzheimer’s disease. Elsewhere Thomas Fletcher’s ‘the Big Drift’ uses the solar system’s drifting apart as a metaphor for his own life which has been dissipating over many years to living on his own, still yearning after his ex-wife despite being separated for donkey’s years and settling down to be a physics teacher rather than follow his dreams to be an astronaut. A wry, well-written satire of contemporary life.
One of my favourite stories of the collection is Paul Hocker’s ‘Bad December’. This Trainspotting-esque narrative launches us into a park in Scotland with a couple of alcoholics passing a beer back-and-forth. One decides he needs to kick his habit and goes to spend Christmas in a tin hut in Eskdalemuir. Mutt, his friend, thinks he’s crazy. And so inevitably accompanies him. While there, they witness a plane burning through the sky and body parts (both of the plane and it’s passengers) come raining down on them. Only for Mutt to then end up wheeling the plane’s drinks trolley along and chucking his friend a whiskey. The dialogue is brilliant, wonderfully capturing the Scottish vernacular and thus the characterisation is excellent. The characters Hocker creates are insolent, eccentric and absolutely hilarious. For example one scene sees Mutt ‘hunting’ for the evening’s meal, finding a sheep he plans to feast on, only for his attempts to killing the animal being comparable to him ‘playing the violin’. As Ra Page forewarns us, the tales are certainly unpredictable. Entertaining too. But is this a genuine attempt at imitating reality? Perhaps…
Another of my preferred stories is L.E.Yates’ ‘Lucky and Unlucky’ which delights in the minutiae of the commuter’s lifestyle and his daily trip to work in the city. The narrative voice is confident and amusing, firstly hypothesising his girlfriend’s commute routine, and then recounting his own, both of which intertwine as the pair meet on the train platform. ‘I have already got gingerly out of bed and kicked over a full glass of water I had considerately left there for myself last night. It soaked the library book sprawled face down with the spine cracked on the floor next to it. Unlucky.’ We meander through the pleasant narrative and may exclaim “wait a minute! Isn’t this exactly what the editor is supposed to be opposing himself to?” But the tragic denouement grabs the reader and pulls him from this initially cosy narrative firmly back to the hard reality of accidents, intensive care, lost legs and ‘torn off’ skin.
“Short stories are like a crow that flies down your chimney and scares the crap out of you when you’re watching telly” says Adam Marek, author or ‘Testicular Cancer vs The Behemoth’, “it transforms your world in an instant, then escapes through a window a few moments later leaving you breathless.” This is certainly what a lot of these short narratives have been able achieve. Quite a coup when you consider that this is an anthology of authors being showcased for the first time in a published text. Although there are signs of immaturity (sometimes I could feel writers trying too hard, like I do with my own writing, trying to use complicated words and overloading the narrative with fancy adjectives), the collection is full of accomplished, polished writing and captivating, thought-provoking plots. The anthology was published in 2005, nine years ago now, and Comma Press has published a handful of anthologies and many individual titles since then which I am looking to getting my hands on. If this one is anything to go by, it looks as though I’m in for a treat.
Thanks for reading. I’d be interested to hear if you’ve read any books by Comma/any other indie presses that I should get my mitts on? Cheers!