When the estimable Andy Miller, the host of the Backlisted podcast, recommended a new collection of short stories on Twitter, he said just enough about it to pique my interest. Online booksellers didn’t seem to have heard of it and I had to buy it directly from the publisher. I’m very glad I did. Robert Shearman’s We All Hear Stories in the Dark, running to three volumes and 1,750 pages, is the most original and impressive new fiction I’ve read this year.
You have to find your own way through it. It takes its form from an outdated but fondly remembered series of paperbacks for children, the Adventures of You, invented by the American author Edward Packard. You reached the end of a chapter and were presented with choices for further reading: either slay the dragon and go to p.44, or walk away and go to p.78.
In Shearman’s collection, you finish a short story and are presented with a number of choices, in quite a disingenuously naive style: ‘For other nice stories about love, turn to…’ You follow a sequence, and at a certain point find yourself locked in to a conclusion. When the book ejects you, you may have read only ten stories out of the 101, or (with cunning) a lot more. It is ingenious and diabolical; you soon feel as if you are pitting your wits against the book’s designs on you.
There is no contents page and no means of searching the physical text (there is no e-book). Once you have moved on from a story it is quite hard to find it again anywhere but in your memory. This is undeniably frustrating; but frustration, delay, the promise and withholding of anticipated pleasure are at the heart of reading. Here is an author who knows what he’s about. The book has its own secrets; there are very few paths leading to the bleakest story, ‘Baby Sick’, and none at all to an essay on stories and personal grief. You have to cheat to read that, as everyone will, with a faint feeling of proper shame at breaking any number of rules, of reading what you shouldn’t.
An ingenious structure would be nothing unless the stories themselves were good — and these are sensationally good. They are rooted in reality, but not limited to it. The supernatural enters, the lives of the dead, and also the lives of fictional, mythical and biblical characters. Some stories ask what it would be like to be a minor character in the Charlie Brown comic strip, or the Englishman, Scotsman or Irishman in the joke. Unusual features of modern life, such as the ‘pillow menu’ in luxury hotels or the collector of macabre objects, are led remorselessly to a logical or illogical conclusion. The effects of the impossible on real life are seriously considered. What would happen to the performing arts after a zombie apocalypse? What would follow on from your being given 72 virgins on arriving in heaven?
The stories are dizzyingly varied and inventive; one hardly ever has the sense of repetition, but only of themes and properties being returned to. Everyone will have a different journey through the book and a different impression of predominant themes. Readers will find some stories closer than others; one that pays homage to the great writer of ‘weird tales’, Robert Aickman, gave me the disconcerting illusion of having been written specifically for me.
I was struck by investigations of classic performers such as Laurel and Hardy, and also by stories of political tyranny: ‘Please Me’, about the romantic demands on a professional pianist made by the daughter of a dictator, was one of the most powerful in my route through the book. After a while, a circling theme starts to make itself felt: a recurrent note of loss, and a series of broken links between parents and children, a sense of things somehow falling short. The collection pulls off an extraordinary feat: it is varied and contrasted enough to sustain its enormous length but also unified in theme. It was a very big mind that created so many different approaches to the central idea.
Earlier this year, I published a Penguin anthology of the great period of British short stories before 1914. The best writers of that time, including Henry James, Conrad and Kipling, engaged with genre as well as observed reality, establishing conventions and turning them upside down. I didn’t expect to see that energy or creative violence in the contemporary short story, and certainly not combined with such elegance of style. Shearman’s remarkable collection, beautifully envisaged and thrillingly executed, brings real life back into the game.
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