Book notes: Toby Litt and Stuart Evers

Toby Litt, Ghost Story (2004)

Toby Litt is an author I’ve intended to read for ages; his work is so varied that it’s hard to know where to start, so I just went for something from the middle of his career to date. I may not know Litt’s work that well, but I know enough to be wary of a novel that so blatantly declares its (ostensible) genre. And, indeed, Ghost Story is not a ghost story as you might imagine; its ‘ghosts’ are not the supernatural kind.

When first we meet Agatha and Paddy, she’s expecting, and they’re about to leave London for a new home on the south coast. After they’ve moved in, Agatha has given birth to Max, but miscarried his twin, which has affected her deeply (as it has Paddy, but Agatha is the novel’s main focus), and she becomes withdrawn. Effectively, Agatha comes to haunt (and is haunted by) her own house. Litt tells this story in a way that highlights its fictionality: long descriptive passages which create a sense of lassitude, dialogue which feels theatrical rather than naturalistic – and there’s a tension between this and the book’s emotions, which ring so true.

It seems to me that key to understanding Ghost Story is its fifty-page preface, in which Litt describes how he and his partner were themselves affected by three miscarriages. This memoir also includes a couple of fantastical sections; the sense here is that fiction can tell certain kinds of truth which non-fiction cannot. The story of Agatha and Paddy strikes me as a portrait of loss which lies beneath the surface of what’s told, and is perhaps all the more powerful for it.

Elsewhere
Toby Litt’s website
Some other reviews of Ghost Story: Reading Matters; Joanna Briscoe for The Guardian.

Stuart Evers, If This Is Home (2012)

The author of last year’s excellent Ten Stories About Smoking returns with his first novel, which continues to explore how life may fall short of one’s dreams. Evers’ protagonist is Mark Wilkinson, who escaped his life in Cheshire and made it in America as ‘Joe Novak’; when we meet him in the early 2000s, he’s in Las Vegas , selling apartments at the ultra-high-end Valhalla complex. Alternate chapters chronicle a day in 1990 when Mark’s teenage girlfriend Bethany Wilder became a reluctant beauty queen at a parade, shortly before she and Mark were planning to leave for New York. But Bethany is nowhere to be seen in Mark’s present life – what happened becomes clear about halfway through the novel, when an incident moves Mark to return to the UK and catch up with the people and places of his own life.

There are some striking and well-handled shifts of tone in If This Is Home. In the opening chapters, the Valhalla complex seems almost to belong in a more heightened reality, which contrasts sharply with the down-to-earth nature of the Cheshire-set sequences. Later on, the novel starts to turn on Mark’s character and, balances reality with a slight unreality in a different way – yet If This Is Home always feels a cohesive whole. Evers examines the difficulties of fitting in, leaving and returning; and shows how an individual can simultaneously have no options and all the choice in the world.

Elsewhere

Stuart Evers’ website
Evers interviewed on Nikesh Shukla’s Subaltern podcast.
Some other reviews of If This Is Home: Julie Fisher for Bookmunch; Dog Ear Discs; David Whelan for Litro.

ShortStoryVille and the Bristol Short Story Prize

Last Saturday was the inaugural (and, I’m sure, not the last) ShortStoryVille festival in Bristol, in which Joe Melia of the Bristol Short Story Prize had kindly asked me to participate. When I arrived in Bristol that morning, the weather was grey, miserable and damp—in other words, perfect weather for staying in and reading a book. But it was great to see how many people had instead made the trip to the Arnolfini arts centre to hear short stories being read and discussed.

In the day’s first panel, the writer and critic Bidisha interviewed Sarah Salway, Alison MacLeod, and Janice Galloway about the art of writing short fiction. The three authors also read from their work, which really brought home to me how much their work seemed intended to be spoken; with Galloway’s piece especially, it was a completely different experience hearing the rhythms of her prose read aloud. Following on from the writing panel, we flipped it around to discuss reading short stories, and this was where I joined Scott Pack and Clare Hey in conversation with Tania Hershman; I think (and hope!) that we managed to say something interesting and useful.

The second half of the day began with Joe Spurgeon of the local magazine Venue interviewing Helen Oyeyemi and Stuart Evers about their latest books; if you haven’t read them, do, as both are very good indeed. Then came a series of readings from local writers, compèred by Bristol Prize chair of judges, Bertel Martin; the authors involved were Sarah Hilary, Patricia Ferguson, Gareth Powell, Emma Newman, Tania Hershman, and Amy Mason. Between their readings and recommendations, I have yet more books I want to investigate.

And after ShortStoryVille came the presentation of this year’s Bristol Short Story Prize. Congratulations to Emily Bullock, who won for her story ‘My Girl’; I read it on the train home, and it is a worthy winner. My thanks to Joe Melia and everyone else involved in ShortStoryVille for superb day; I am pleased to have been a part of it, and hope that it will turn out to have been the first of many. At a time when the BBC has announced plans to reduce the volume of short fiction programming on Radio 4, it’s good to have an event like ShortStoryVille to reassert that the short story is a vital art form.

Elsewhere

Some more write-ups of ShortStoryVille…
Vanessa Gebbie
Clare Hey
Tania Hershman

Stuart Evers, Ten Stories About Smoking (2011)

The saying goes that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but it would seem wrong not to mention the design of Ten Stories About Smoking, which comes in a flip-top box that looks like a cigarette packet, with the cover of the volume itself as the ‘cigarettes’.  It’s a brilliant piece of work that really enhances the reading experience, and I take my hat off to the designers, Two Associates.

Of course, as good as the design may be, what counts the most is the quality of the stories; I’m pleased to say that Stuart Evers has written a fine selection here. First, the title of the collection: all the stories feature smoking in some way, but often in the background, so the tales aren’t necessarily ‘about smoking’ in a literal sense—but Evers often gives smoking a metaphorical purpose in his stories, and they can be ‘about’ what smoking represents within them.

‘Things Seem So Far Away, Here’ is a good example of what I mean. Having received news from the doctor that effectively derails her life, Linda goes to visit her younger, more successful, brother Daniel, in the hope that she’ll be hired to look after her niece, Poppy. Evers doesn’t need to use description to evoke the difference between Daniel’s comfortable middle-class family life and Linda’s bedsit existence, because it’s there in the details that Linda observes, and the way that she knows how Daniel’s lifestyle works (on observing family photographs in the main room, Linda is aware that ‘should anything happen to her brother’s family, these were the photos that would be given to the television and the newspapers,’ p. 32). When Linda makes the comment that gives the story its title, she may be referring to the isolated rural location of Daniel’s house, but we also feel the distance between the siblings’ lives, because so little detail of Linda’s home life is given in comparison to that of Daniel’s family. Linda’s smoking habit comes to represent that distance, and the image of a smoke-tainted jumper symbolises how far it will remain.

Evers’ characters frequently find their plans and ambitions thwarted. Moore, the protagonist of ‘Some Great Project’ is looking for something to occupy his mind after the deaths of his parents, but nothing quite works until he starts cataloguing old family photos—which leads him to discover that he has a brother about whom he never knew. Moore travels to Spain in search of his brother, but it doesn’t work out how he imagined. In this story, smoking is a symbol of the lives that never were, as Moore’s brother lights the cigarettes of his fallen Falklands comrades; but the theme of lost opportunities is carried all the way through, from the opening scene of the teenage Moore being denied the chance to read his grandfather’s collection of adventure novels, to the ironic closing twist. ‘Some Great Project’ is a very elegantly constructed piece.

Sometimes in Ten Stories About Smoking, there’s a striking sense that the ‘real story’, as it were’ is going on elsewhere, yet the tales are no less satisfying for that. ‘Real Work’ depicts the gradual unravelling of the relationship between Ben and his artist girlfriend Cara; the two come from different worlds, and Ben gradually becomes disillusioned as he realises that he and Cara simply want different things from life.  But it’s the subtle way Evers depicts the process of this which makes the story work so well; by the end, when Cara is exhibiting her new film, little may have changed on the surface, yet we know how much really has. Even more striking is ‘The Best Place in Town’, in which David Falmer, on a stag-party trip to Las Vegas, takes a walk through the city that acts as a kinetic way for him to come to terms with his discontents (also symbolised by the way Falmer begins the story smoking for the first time in thirteen years, and ends it admiring a magician doing tricks with cigarettes)—but the very last scene reveals that John, the bridegroom-to-be, has problems of his own, which have not been (and will not be) explored; and this creates an interesting effect when set against the completeness of Falmer’s story.

Perhaps the tale which is most directly concerned with smoking is the book’s closing piece, aptly titled ‘The Final Cigarette’. This concerns a dying man named Ray Peters, who is having what will probably be his last smoke. Two versions of this alternate: in one, Ray is American, and on his hotel balcony in Reno, two days after marrying a younger woman; in the other strand, Ray is British, waiting for the end in hospital, and being visited by his son, though his wife refuses to see him. The contrast between these two versions of reality is well-drawn and powerful, with the American strand (which I took to be imaginary) a vision of happiness and strength (given Ray’s situation, that is), with even the cigarette-smoking looking and feeling good. In the British reality (the ‘real’ reality, perhaps), however, Ray is slowly wasting away, his smoking comes across as a desperate comfort for a dying man, and his relations with those around him are not always cordial. ‘The Final Cigarette’ is a vivid portrait of the realities of life not living up to one’s dreams. That sums up what strikes me as the main theme of Stuart Evers collection –a book of ten fine stories which are about plenty more than just smoking.

Elsewhere
Read ‘Some Great Project (Litro) and ‘What’s in Swindon?‘ (Scarecrow) from the collection.
Stuart Evers’ blog
Booktrust interview with Evers
Some other reviews of Ten Stories About Smoking: James Doyle for Bookmunch; Just William’s Luck; Leyla Sanai for The Independent; Alex Preston for New Statesman.