Saturday 25 November 2017

Love, sweat and tears in uneven collection

Short ­stories: Sex & Death, Edited by Sarah Hall and Peter Hobbs, Faber & Faber, hdbk, 336 pages, €17.47

Kevin Barry's 'Toronto and the State of Grace' appears in a new collection of short stories, Sex & Death
Kevin Barry's 'Toronto and the State of Grace' appears in a new collection of short stories, Sex & Death
Sex and Death, edited by Sarah Hall and Peter Hobbs

John Boland

For Woody Allen's character in the 1973 movie Sleeper, sex and death were "two things that come once in a lifetime, but at least after death you're not nauseous".

The editors of this new Faber anthology adopt a less frivolous approach, solemnly declaring that "how we come in, and how we go out, sex and death: these are the governing drives, our two greatest themes".

Are they really? How about love and loneliness? Or time and transience? But no, "the humid embrace and the cold sweat" - these are the defining elements in our lives and, as it happens, the short story form is "the perfect vehicle for our ecstasies and agonies". And thus they offer us "twenty stripped versions of the meaning of us, if we have any meaning at all".

After such introductory guff, we come to the stories themselves and discover that many of them aren't actually about sex or death at all, unless the editors' definitions are so indulgent as to embrace almost anything that human beings think, feel and do as aspects of the book's declared themes.

So 20 disparate stories, then, by 20 different writers, some of them internationally known (Jon McGregor, Kevin Barry, Ali Smith) but most of them unfamiliar names to most readers. The latter, as it turns out, contribute some of the best stories to a very uneven collection.

Melbourne writer Robert Drewe begins the volume with an arresting opening sentence ("Don dropped dead on the sand and that was that"), widow Betty the wry narrator as she copes with the aftermath of her husband's demise. "I try to avoid sunsets," she tells us. "They stand for things being over." But the story is as sprightly as it's sad.

Also striking is 'Fixations' by Sydney author Ceridwen Dovey, where new mother Selene, in torment after the birth, looks at women pregnant for the second time "with utter incredulity: they'd actually chosen to have sex again!" Anyway the flesh, she reflects, "is designed to disappoint".

In Wells Tower's 'The Postcard' the early ambition of photographer Cora had been to spend her life idealistically "taking pictures that mattered of people who did not". However, with rent to be paid, she ended up taking lucrative pictures "that mattered not at all of those who matter quite a lot", while also betraying her husband with 11 lovers in six months. The story is very wittily told.

I liked, too, Peter Hobbs's eerie 'In the Reactor' and Clare Wigfall's 'The Fortune Fish', in which two casual lovers from the San Francisco hippie scene of the late 1960s meet up again unsatisfactorily a couple of decades later; while Jon McGregor's 'Where Has Thou Been' lovingly evokes ramshackle university life in the England of another era, with a narrator who'd "never been laid" seeking sexual fulfilment wherever he went - while also recognising that, for him and his pals, "soon the babies would come and the parties would stop".

These are notable stories. Others begin promisingly before coming to spluttering conclusions, while a few don't work at all, including Ali Smith's quite baffling 'Metaphysical'.

Kevin Barry's 'Toronto and the State of Grace' has all the quirkiness you'd expect from this master of the form and its bleak west of Ireland setting registers vividly, though the central mother-and-son duo who turn up in the narrator's empty pub are so flamboyant ("our background is theatrical") that the reader may find them less amusing than their creator plainly did.

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