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Sunday, 27 January 2013

Dot Dash


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Don’t be afraid to let the right brain off the leash. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike—start writing. And if all else fails, bring on a talking animal. – Jonathan Pinnock, ‘Anatomy of a Flash’




I’m not saying that Jonathan Pinnock’s as successful as he is because he’s not afraid of hard work but once you start to delve into this guy’s life the one thing that screams from the page is that he’s clearly not afraid of hard work or of being busy. Examples of his writing can be found all over the place online and he regularly wins prizes in short story competitions. His first novel, Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens, was published by Proxima Books in September 2011 and this was followed in 2012 by his Scott Prize-winning short story collection, Dot Dash, published by Salt. On top of that he writes music, draws cartoons, writes articles and poetry, maintains a blog and… oh, runs a software development company called Jonathan Pinnock and Associates which also involves a bit of writing. He somehow finds time to be married, be a dad and possibly sleep.

 

The Dots

This is the third short story collection I’ve read in a row. The first contained just stories, the second just flash fiction and now we have this where each story (the dashes of the title) is interspersed by a piece of flash fiction (the dots). I have to say I like this approach. I like flash fiction and I’ve read a few collections but, like poetry, I much prefer to run across one or two a day in my inbox or a news feed—a whole book of them feels like a bit much—whereas this way the piece of flash serves as a short respite; something light, a palette cleanser if you like.

There have been some very, very short stories published in the past, like this gem by Richard Brautigan:

The Scarlatti Tilt

"It's very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who's learning to play the violin." That's what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.

but there’s a danger that, because of the brevity of the piece, it can come across more like a joke than a proper story:

A screwdriver walks into a bar. The bartender says, "Hey, we have a drink named after you!"

The screwdriver responds, "You have a drink named Murray?"

I even wrote a whole blog about it: Is flash fiction a joke?

Jonathan’s tiniest tweet-sized flash pieces definitely veer towards the set-up/punch line format:

Opposites

She was beautiful, sexy, made of antimatter. Best bang of my life.

Steaming

Terry peered at the steaming heap of undifferentiated cells and sighed. “Teleport engineer’s arrived,” he announced.

Less Than Deadly

His attempt to commit all seven deadly sins in one week ended in failure. On reflection, it was probably a bad idea to start with sloth.

Great literature this is not but it’s not aspiring to be. Like jokes they make you pause and smile but after you’ve watched a comic crack one-liners like this for an hour how many do you remember? I watched a fellow about six months ago whose humour rested on the pun and I only remember one joke he told. I know I smiled all the way through and enjoyed myself but only one stuck:

“My dog has no dictionary.”

“How does he spell ‘terrible’?”

HemingwayI wouldn’t have been surprised to see a piece like that show its face in Jonathan’s collection. Not all are trite; most are clever and a couple actually thought-provoking. I enjoyed the short series: ‘Love Story, Day One’, ‘Love Story, Week One’, ‘Love Story, Month One’ and ‘Love Story, Year One’. They could easily have fitted on a single page (as is done here) but I liked the story split over four stories. These have more of a flavour of Hemingway’s famous

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Jonathan’s not actually been writing flash fiction that long. In an interview with Rumjhum Biswas he had this to say:

RB: Can you tell us about your first flash fiction experience? Both, the one you read and the one you wrote?

JP: Both happened at the same time, in late 2007. I’d never come across the term before, but I was taking part in an event for charity where you had to write something new every hour based on e-mailed prompts and the very first flashes I wrote came out of that. Also, we had to critique each other’s work, so I also had to read everyone else’s flashes. It was quite a learning experience, both from the point of view of opening my eyes up to a new form and almost immediately having my attempts at that form subjected to fierce critique!

Five years on he’s obviously has time to hone his craft and there really isn’t a bad piece of flash in the book but because he’s opted to focus on the tiniest examples of his craft I don’t think he quite shines here as much as he might. In the same interview he talks about what he personally looks for in a piece of flash:

Someone once told me that the most important thing about a poem was that every word had to earn its place, and I think the same principle applies to flash. It doesn’t need to make perfect sense but it needs to make me think. Or laugh. Or cry. Ideally all three, although that doesn’t happen very often.

[…]

It would have to grab me from the first sentence and not let me go until the end. There’s no scope for flab. Also, it doesn’t have to be a twist or a punch line, but the ending has to deliver something. Sorry if that sounds a bit enigmatic. A good ending is very tricky to define, but you know it when you see it.

None of the really tiny pieces grabbed me in the way he describes here and they were over too quickly. A better example is this one:

Misunderstandings

One our first date, she said she was an animal lover, which sounded promising until I realised that “animal” was not an adjective. However, at least I now knew how to win her heart.

So I bought a small white mouse for her, called Benji. After a week with him, I became quite attached and I felt unbearably sad at the prospect of giving him away.

On our second date, I presented the gift to her as she opened the door to her flat. She hesitated briefly. Then smiling, she took Benji from me and fed him to her python.

This is better. It could’ve ended after the first sentence—that would’ve worked—but those extra seventy-seven words make all the difference.

 

The Dashes

O HenryBalancing everything out are the dashes. These are better still, much better. None are especially long—the longest looks to be about 3000 words—but these are well-rounded pieces, proper stories, although, to be fair, he still likes to lead up to a punch line of sorts and that’s fine; it certainly didn’t do O Henry any harm. Humour is still a big part of this collection. Granted it’s occasionally a bit on the dark side—just what might bored spacemen really get up to on a long flight?—but there are no really heavy stories. The problem I’m going to have now is how to talk about these without letting on where the stories are going because they’ll be very easy to spoil.

On the whole the stories are based firmly in the real world. In ‘rZr and Napoleon’, for example (shortlisted for last year's Bristol Short Story Prize), we have a Banksy-style character hiding behind his balaclava and demanding (and getting paid) ludicrous sums of money for his more corporate work but it looks like he has his own agenda; ‘The Amazing Arnolfini and His Wife’ (which was read on BBC radio) features a husband and wife tightrope walking team who travel across America wowing audiences with their daredevil acrobatics and in the delightful ‘Return to Cairo’ (3rd prize, City of Derby Short Story Competition) a girl goes to extraordinary lengths to please her grandmother.

Others have a slight science fiction edge, like ‘Convalescence’ (3rd prize, University of Hertfordshire Writing Award) where a man’s received a partial brain transplant and there are complications (think The Hands of Orlac); ‘The Problem with Pork’ (Supplementary prize, Bournemouth Short Story Competition) is set in a future where, following two Epidemics, meat has become a rarity and ‘Anniversary Feast’ takes place on-board that spaceship I mentioned before which is transporting colonists to a distant world. (See what I mean? Your mind’s working overtime. What could they possibly be doing with their hibernating crewmates?)

Some, are just plain fantastic, like ‘Advice re Elephants’ (Shortlisted, Seán Ó Faoláin Competition) in which a couple deal with the (literal) elephant in the room, ‘Canine Mathematics’—which incorporates talking dogs and a talking cat—and ‘Fisherman’s Tales’ (2nd prize, Milton Keynes Speakeasy Competition) where a man sets out to reel in a mermaid.

And then there are a couple of slightly-experimental ones too, like ‘Possible Side Effects’ (3rd prize, Calderdale Short Story Competition) which is told backwards (when I got to the… beginning I literally read it back to the end to see if it worked better that way and, yes, the punch line is in the first paragraph) or the self-consciously postmodern and metafictive ‘Somewhat Less Than Thirty Pieces’ (Longlisted, Cadenza Competition).

In an interview with Dan Purdue Jonathan talks about how he chose the fifty-eight:

I'm not a big fan of themed collections. I'm more interested in seeing what a writer can do in different genres and styles. So it was a case of picking the best stories I had.

I am actually a fan of themed collections or, if not themed, then toned. Jonathan may jump around subject matter and even genre but there is still an overall tone to this grouping of stories; they felt like they were written by the same person.

So, what is it about this guy’s stories that keeps getting him in to the finals of competitions? Not sure. On Facebook recently he had this to say (albeit about a poem):

Another day, another Highly Commended poem. This time it's ‘Seven Day Wonder’ at Newark. Would have been nice to make the winner's enclosure, but I guess I can't really complain. I have this feeling that the kind of stuff I do tends to be clever enough to make the shortlist but not really profound enough to go any further.

I think he’s hit the nail on the head here because the best of the stories in this book—and by ‘best’ I mean the ones I would want to read a second time—are the ones that exhibit an element of profundity. It’s an awful stodgy word I know so let’s try some synonyms: understanding, perceptiveness, insight, wisdom.

One of the ones that exceeds the sum of its parts is ‘Return to Cairo’. At the start of the book the publisher’s opted to include a ‘Praise for Dot Dash’ section and Tania Hershman includes a spoiler in her paragraph (although she doesn’t let on what the twist at the end is) so I don’t mind talking about this one.

I don’t know how we ended up with Nan living with us. It’s hard enough for Mum coping with Danny and me, but Nan’s getting more and more difficult all the time. Not that Mum notices. She’s so tired when she gets in, she’s in a little world of her own. It’s me who ends up dealing with Nan. And I’m the one she says it to.

“Want to go back to Cairo.”

“What? Can you lift your leg a bit more?” I’m trying to change her catheter bag. The district nurse explained to me how to do it, but I’m still getting the hang of it.

“I said I want to go back to Cairo. Liked it there.”

“Nan, you’ve never been to Cairo,” I say. “Have you?”

“Have. Nice place. Hot. Full of Arabs, y’know.”

“Nan, you’ve never been abroad. You haven’t even got a passport.”

“Have.”

“No you haven’t.”

“Want to go back to Cairo.”

As far as Jonathan’s writing style goes this is as good an example as any in the book. It’s clean, spare and captures the essence of the situation in as few words as possible. There’re no long and winding descriptions of Nan, her physical state or her living conditions. She’s a nan. Most of us have them. I like the fact the mother’s “in a little world of her own” as well as the grandmother and, of course, this is realistic and there must be a goodly number of schoolchildren out there—for that’s what she is—who have to take on the lion’s share of the care. She asks her mum:

“When was Nan in Cairo, Mum?” I say.

“What?”

“Nan. In Cairo.”

“Dunno. Never mentioned it to me. Why?”

“Says she wants to go back there.”

Mum laughs. “Well I’m not paying for the air fare.”

Again, we get exactly what we need to understand what’s going on here. The dialogue is realistic and believable. The mother is clearly working all the hours God sends to support her family—no sign of a dad—and so that’s the first thing she would think about, money; even love has to cut its cloth.

The rest of the story then outlines what lengths this girl goes to, what favours she call in—like putting in a good word with Saffron Henderson for her older brother—to recreate Cairo in Nan’s room. Turning up the heating is a start but the old lady still has a few marbles left:

“It’s hot,” she says.

“Course it’s hot, Nan. You’re in a hot country.”

“Where am I?”

“In Cairo, of course.”

“Doesn’t look like Cairo.”

“That’s because you’re inside.”

“Doesn’t sound like Cairo.”

“That’s because—” Sod it. “You’re not quite there yet,” I say.

Arabian MoodsThe music helps—she goes down to the World Music section in the library and borrows a CD called Arabian Moods—then she nicks some incense from her brother’s room “that his last girlfriend, Moonbeam, left behind.” Street sounds pose a problem but a geeky Asian kid with thick glasses her friend Lorna knows helps out there, with the sand and—with the aid “of a dodgy Sky box … a free subscription to Al Jazeera [which is] basically Channel Al Qa’eda.” The effort they go to to recreate this environment is wonderful but what raises this story a level is the dialogue between the respective parties. It’s not completely in dialogue but it is dialogue-heavy; this is a wonderful way to compress a lot of action and detail into a small space. At the end of the story Great Aunt Mabel appears on the scene and the truth is revealed but I’m not letting on what it is. These are real people. These are believable people. I have a mother-in-law who could play Nan in her sleep.

When asked what his favourite story was Jonathan picked this one (in two separate interviews):

I’d probably go for ‘Return to Cairo’ because I think I managed to judge the emotional level about right without tipping over into mawkishness, and I’m quite proud of the central character.

[…]

[I]t combines humour and absurdity with pathos. But ask me again tomorrow, and I’ll almost certainly have changed my mind.

He’s right. This one could’ve gone badly in a few different ways but he manages to pull it off. Put it this way, I’d really like to read the stories that got first and second prizes in the City of Derby Short Story Competition that year; they must have been corkers.

In a third interview he picked ‘Mr Nathwani’s Haiku’ as his favourite, because, he says, “it’s intriguing and—in the end—an accurate description of where the story is leading to.” I prefer ‘Return to Cairo’ but this one has its charms too—and having a haiku as a punch line has to be a first. This one is also very different to ‘Return to Cairo’ in that there’s no dialogue in it at all. Despite that fact it presents an accurate character study, primarily of Mr Nathwani (who once owned the “most successful car dealership in Kampala” until his family is expelled from Uganda) but also his wife, Lakshmi, named, one must imagine, after the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity (both material and spiritual) and I’m sure that name wasn’t pulled out of a hat. The family wind up in England:

England was cold and wet, and Lakshmi suffered terribly from morning sickness. They lived with their relatives in Southall until they could find a place of their own. With what little money that they had managed to bring out with them, the put down a deposit on a corner shop. The man who sold it to them seemed relieved to have it taken off his hands, even if it was to one of “your lot”. Mr Nathwani said nothing. He was learning that to say nothing was often the right thing to do.

Selling groceries was not really like selling cars, but they had no choice. They hardly ever left the shop, except to stock up at the cash and carry. All they did was work and sleep. Lakshmi was stacking shelves in her final month.

Just as most of us have grandmothers most of his will have a corner shop at the end of the road run by Asians. We certainly have. Carrie and I have lived here for about ten years now and yet I don’t think I’ve ever done as much as pass the time of day with any of these men—there’re no women in our shop—and the same goes for every one I’ve ever shopped in. In Glasgow we call them Pakis—the shops, irrespective of the nationality of their proprietors—but then we can be an ignorant lot. Bradbury1This is why this story moved me because it’s really a portrait of a faceless man. And you don’t get much more profound than that unless you’re Ralph Ellison.

One I particularly enjoyed was ‘The Birdman of Farringdon Road’. This is a Bradbury-esque tale in the vein of Stephen King’s Needful Things and by that I mean that, had Bradbury got the idea for Needful Things he would’ve probably turned it into a short story rather than a novel. It begins:

I don’t usually give money to beggars. After all, they’ll only spend it on drink. So I’m really not sure what got into my head that July morning. Maybe it was the sunshine, maybe it was the girls in short dresses, maybe there was just something in the air. Whatever it was, I went over to the old tramp outside the station and threw a couple of pounds into his bucket. Instead of thanking me, however, he stood up, reached behind my ear and produced a single feather, as if by magic. Looking deep into my eyes, he pressed the feather into my hands, closing them over with his.

“You’re a bird,” he said to me. The voice was quiet, steady and educated, with no discernible accent. He held my gaze for several more seconds before nodding slightly and releasing me. I didn’t really know what to say, so I simply nodded back and moved away, putting the feather in the inside pocket of my jacket.

Far from being discomfited by the morning’s strange encounter, I felt elated for the rest of the day. A bird! Yes! That’s what I was! I was an eagle, soaring with wings outstretched above the mundane pettiness of everyday working life, just waiting for the moment to strike. At last my destiny had been revealed to me.

At the end of the week the man—whose week has just got better and better since their first encounter—runs into the beggar again and decides to take him for a drink where he learns about the man’s uncanny ability: all he has to do is look at a person and tell what animal they are and what traits they might display:

He spent the next quarter of an hour identifying a bizarre array of animals who were apparently sharing the bar with us. Finally, I drained my glass, and made to leave.

“Er … your round, I think?” he said.

“Well, I was just leaving.”

“I’m not. And whilst you’re at the bar, have another look at that dark one. Trust me, she’s red hot.”

“But what’s so special about her? I still like the look of that blonde.”

“Nah. She’s a rabbit.”

“Sorry? Excuse me, but isn’t that …”

He leaned in close, and whispered in my ear. “The one in the middle is an octopus.” He tapped his nose in a meaningful manner, nodding slightly.

The beggar is right. After an “exhausting weekend” with the ‘octopus’ a plan forms in his mind. He has to hire a new team and decides to pay the beggar to vet the candidates. He tells him what he’s looking for—a fox, a dog and a cat—explaining his reasoning and the man agrees—for a rather hefty fee—to do as he asks. Now, ask yourself, what could possibly go wrong here?

 

Overall

This is a fine collection of short stories and well-balanced. I’ve mentioned my reservations as regards the dots but I also have one regarding the dashes. It’s not a big one but I feel it needs mentioning even though life being as hectic as it is nowadays I doubt anyone would be too fussed about it. With one or two exceptions there weren’t many stories here that I felt I wanted to reread and relish. They weren’t hard reads—and by that I mean they were so well-written that I slipped seamlessly from one sentence to the next and never once had to reread a paragraph to see if I’d understood him right the first time (with the sole exception of the story written in reverse) although there was a dot that I stared at for longer than I really ought to have before I could see where he was going with it; my wife when I showed her also took an extra few seconds before she got it. Who, these days, has time to read a book more than once anyway? Because of the ease of reading it’s tempting to treat these works as lighter than what they are though. Granted there are some that are deliberately light and fluffy (like the appropriately-named ‘Hidden Shallows’) and, really, what’s the point rereading them once you’ve got the joke? The book’s not full of them so enjoy them for what they are. The bottom line is that this is an enjoyable read from beginning to end. This would have been perfect bus reading for me because having to get off and go to work would’ve stopped me devouring the book in one or two sessions; I actually managed to spread it over four sittings. This wasn’t a review copy by the way. I bought an electronic version for 77p off Amazon and all I can say is that’s a ridiculously-cheap price to pay for a work of this quality. I imagine though by the time this review gets posted—I’m actually writing this on New Year’s Day—the sale will be over.

Stories from Dot Dash available online and not linked to above:

***

j_pinnockJonathan Pinnock was born in Bedford, England. After reading Mathematics at Clare College, Cambridge, he drifted into the world of software and has remained there ever since. He has written one book on software development and co-authored a further dozen, most of which are now almost entirely obsolete.

He is married with two slightly grown-up children and a 1961 Ami Continental jukebox.

He’s currently finished his third book which he describes as “the story of an offbeat real-life quest I undertook recently” and is looking for a publisher at the moment.

9 comments:

Art Durkee said...

I have to say, I often feel like flash fiction is indistinguishable from stand-up comedy. Set-up, delivery, punch line. There is something very postmodern about flash fiction in a negative way: often you get a lot of ironic distancing, a fair bit of mannerist prose, all surface and no depth. Basically, quick ironic snapshots of everyday life.

There is a parallel form in Japanese literary history, called the senryu. It uses the haiku form but is always about human foibles, often a bit humorous or ironic. Often quick slices of life. The vast majority of what I see called haiku written by modern literary writers are in fact senryu. They think they're doing something hip and ironic and new with the haiku form, but in fact they're two or centuries behind the curve. Anyone who really knows haiku can spot a flash fiction senryu a mile away.

I contrast all this with what used to be called short-short stories. One page stories, often again humorous, sometimes atrocious twists and puns, but still, actually STORIES. Not one-liners. Master of this form were Robert Bloch, Gahan Wilson, and even Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven, who both wrote a few very memorable short-shorts. I recall seeing a lot of short-shorts emerging in "genre" fiction like SF and mystery in the 60s and 70s, because there was a lot of literary experimentation going on in those fields at that time.

And then there's the venerable prose-poem.

What I really dislike about most flash fiction is exactly what most people praise it for: its ironic hipster coolness. To me, it's like all the people dressed in black calling themselves artists who never actually make any art, they just sit around drinking coffee and talking about it. How can you tell you're living in decadent artistic times, dominated by mannerism? By the number of artists who talk more than do art, and by the constant self-referential hall-of-mirrors in writing that substitutes for actually having anything to say. I see a LOT of that in flash fiction.

Jim Murdoch said...

I don’t go searching out flash fiction, Art. I only follow one writer who specialises in flash but when I think about it I view his posts in much the same light as I do my daily Garfield and Dilbert strips, essentially, as you say, jokes. In my friend’s case he would have no objection to the comparison because invariably his pieces are humorous. One a day’s fine. It’s exactly the same as comic strips. I’ve got books on my shelves—mainly Garfield and Peanuts—but they become a bit of a chore I find if you read more than a few pages. It’s no different to eating a box of chocolates: the first one or two are great but the more you eat the less you appreciate each individual one—the law of diminishing returns. I’ve no problems with Jonathan’s ‘dots’—I think it’s a good use of pieces like this in fact—but, like you, I prefer some meat on the bones. I’ve another review coming up next week which is a book that consists entirely of flash but far more experimental stuff showing just what can be done with the form.

Dave King said...

Well, I'm not sure about the dots. I can't think I'd get much from them, though the dashes look more promising. The trouble I have with flash fiction is that I end up thinking that the remarkable thing about it is not that it's good, but that s/he's managed to condense it down to this. But then I think:- I wish it had gone on a bit longer or s/he head given more space to x or y.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think that’s a fair point, Dave. That said that’s pretty much true of all fiction which is why authors end up writing sequels or, if they won’t do it, the fans produce their own stuff. Flash, like poetry, relies heavily on the input of the reader to flesh out things or make assumptions or even take leaps of faith. In that respect I think it’s a good thing because having learned these skills they might be more willing to use them with longer text and get a lot more out of their books because of it.

maekitso said...

"Art!", he exclaimed in his first off-site use of an hypertext markup tongue. Your thoughts about flash fiction's indistinguishability from stand-up comedy sound like my thoughts about slam poetry up to the point where you find parallels with Japanese lithistory.

By way of explanation, I took 3 minutes of open-mic time once and delivered it in about 30 seconds: when I gave the mic back to the host and stepped down from the stage, the crowd were mostly silent until the host said "Is that it? Well that was the shortest one we've ever had. Give him a round of applause."

Art Durkee said...

Oh, don't even get me started on Poetry Slams. . . .

It's been pointed out by many others than just myself that the hip-hop rhyming style of poetry has so come to dominate Slams that not only are no other forms of poetry ever applauded or even listened to at Slams, but the hip-hop rhyming style has become virtually synonymous with Slams. You never hear anything else. And if it ain't your style, forget it.

I say that as someone who actually was briefly involved with the early Slam scene in Chicago. Briefly, because as you might imagine nothing I had fit in. I have a poet friend in Minneapolis who had exactly the same experience, too. So it's a pattern.

Jim Murdoch said...

Sorry, Art, Brad, but I have no experience of slams and hardly any of (what I think of as) normal poetry readings. I’m not against poetry as performance—John Cooper Clarke’s made a career out of it and I love his stuff but as far as I’m concerned he’s very much the exception to be cherished and not imitated. That said I do have the first few lines of a John Cooper Clarke pastiche sitting on my desk (untouched for months I might add as I’m having a hard time with his voice). I’ve very little time for rap and hip-hop—a little goes a long way with me—so I can only imagine me hating anything I heard at a slam.

patteran said...

Once again, I find myself tempted to try to break my peculiar and irrational prejudice against short stories!

As to the joke/flash fiction issue, I'm with Art regarding 'its ironic hipster coolness'. There is indeed something so very self-regarding about this style-over-content genre in which the narrator is the protagonist rather than the subject of the narrative. The gap between the stand-up's sharp one-liner and flash fiction is a narrow one. For me, the simple fact that I have chosen to watch and listen to John Bishop, Eddie Izzard, Sean Lock, Dara O' Briain in performance - that I have prioritised medium over message - marks the difference.

In any context, I love 'Less than deadly'. That's going straight into my one-man folk process!

Jim Murdoch said...

I think that haiku and flash share much the same problem, Dick. People see bad examples and then mimic them and after a while there are so many bad examples that people assume that’s what they’re supposed to be like. I’ve another book review going up in a few minutes where one author at least has managed to rise above the morass.

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