Boyd serves up an uneven set of short stories
Fiction: The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth, William Boyd, Viking €20.99
In the novella-length title story of William Boyd's new collection, one of Bethany Mellmoth's many dreams is to be a successful photographer. Like all the others, this dream doesn't work out. Bethany does, however, get as far as planning her first book, which would have comprised pictures of flowers struggling up through concrete - and whose own title would have suited almost all the stories here, including hers. It was to be called Suffering from Optimism.
We first meet Bethany when she's 22, and has recently split up from her boyfriend, dropped out of college and been rejected by six drama schools.
As a result, she decides to try novel writing, and is soon filled with a warm sense of literary promise. (She's particularly proud of the words "a novel by Bethany Mellmoth" on the first page.)
Until, that is, she's offered a tiny part in a low-budget film and starts dreaming of movie stardom instead. When the film project collapses, she resolves to give theatre a go, and "finds herself skipping - actually skipping along the sand".
Unfortunately, her theatrical ambitions go nowhere either, although she does get a gig passing around the hat for a street juggler.
In other words, like many a Boyd character before her, Bethany is forced to realise that life rarely "turn[s] out the way you want it to" - or, more starkly still, that "Things Go Wrong", a phrase she vows to make "her private mantra".
But, like many another Boyd character as well (and perhaps even like many of the rest of us), just because she has to learn this lesson doesn't mean that she ever quite does.
Sure enough, that pesky optimism continually resurfaces, with every casual date a potential husband, every new job a potential route to world-conquering triumph - and every disappointment a genuine surprise. Elsewhere in the book, plenty of other people exhibit a similarly doomed hopefulness.
In "The Man Who Liked Kissing Women", a married London art dealer is confident that his policy of not actually sleeping with other women will spare him the emotional and financial costs of adultery - right up to the moment it doesn't.
In "Unsent Letters", a film-maker tries hard to pretend his cinematic career isn't crumbling, even after he ends up as Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of Shoreditch.
In a 2008 essay, Boyd explained that writing short stories gives him a welcome chance "to change habits, to experiment, to take risks, to try out different voices". And in the best stories here, it's a chance he takes full advantage of, serving up an impressive variety of settings and protagonists - from a German soldier at a UN base in Africa to a middle-class fraudster who emerges from prison "a semi-functioning alcoholic".
Not all of the experiments, mind you, pay off - with some tales suggesting that a more candid version of that 2008 essay might have added a few more motives for his short story writing: among them, the chance to dish up half-formed ideas (rather than say, form them) and to clear out stuff that's been lying around for a while.
"The Road Not Taken" brings us the now fairly routine business of a love affair told in reverse, without adding anything fresh to the formula.
The title story, too, never really earns its 100 pages, with Bethany's constant alternation between hope and disappointment falling victim to the law of diminishing returns, and the whole thing gradually running out of steam, before it doesn't so much conclude as just randomly stop.
The worst offender, though, is "The Vanishing Game: An Adventure...", which takes up the last 50 pages and which Boyd was commissioned to write as a free ebook by Land Rover. (Hence, presumably, the narrator regularly assuring us how reliable his Land Rover is.) Personally, I don't blame Boyd for taking the money. The problem is that he seems to have taken it and run.
The story sets up an intriguing pursuit-thriller plot - but when the time comes to reveal what's been going on, it appears that Boyd doesn't know either.
The narrator simply tells us on the final page that "I knew that I had been the unwitting part of an elaborate conspiracy of some sort," before declaring that "In this instance ignorance really is bliss." Well, not for the reader, it isn't - and surely we're within our rights to feel cheated.
A few years ago, Boyd suggested that the kind of plot-heavy short story, with an old-school beginning, middle and end, now feels dated.
Yet, whether this is true or not, the solution can't possibly be to have an old-school beginning and middle, followed by no end whatsoever. After all, expecting a writer to fulfil the contract with his readers definitely shouldn't qualify as suffering from optimism.
Sunday Indo Living