There’s a well-known classroom exercise in which students are handed a set of instructions. The first step says: read all steps before proceeding. The second step says something like: take out a sheet of lined paper. There are about 26 steps. The last step says: ignore steps two to 25. Inevitably many proceed with the pointless tasks before realising they’ve been conned. What fools! To think, they could have sat with their feet up instead of performing their futile assignments.
But does anyone ever learn anything from this exercise? Life, as we all know, has no instruction manual. And who wants to sit back and watch everyone else get on with things? Don’t we want to dive in, act out our mistakes, if for nothing other than something to do?
Stephen Walsh’s debut short story collection, Shine/Variance addresses ideas like these. There is a tension between the smooth efficiency of rules (quick fixes, life hacks, new technologies and so on) and the bumpy reality of life.
The story Please Say Why You’re Calling feels like a flagship story in this regard. It features a German woman who arrives in Dublin in 1994 to implement an Interactive Voice Response system in a call centre — in other words, to replace human workers with machines. In a caricature of Germanness, and also of the modern workforce, she is obsessed with “efficiency gains”. As you might expect, her approach has no appeal for the Irish workers, who prove impervious to her commands. The project is a failure.
Humanity has triumphed over the dystopian threat of the machine, the story might be saying. But it’s not quite.
“We’ll come back to them in a few years,” says the woman’s boss. “By 96, 97 tops, they’ll be ready. There’ll be an upturn in their economy and people will want to be in other jobs anyway.” Suddenly all that talk of humanity feels quaint and passé. The turbulent mess of the future is trundling towards them. The economy is set to balloon. Ireland is about to win the Eurovision. Riverdance will steal the show. The moment in time serves as a live, flammable entity. A distorted hope has begun to burn, like a firework about to explode.
How should we, as readers feel about this? Resigned? Defiant? It’s hard to say. And isn’t that where good stories leave you: standing there, wondering.
The collection is full of characters like our German who seek rules, or perhaps a better word is code (as in computer code), for how to perform a life. In Wonderhouse (Some Assembly Required), a man attempts to follow instructions to assemble a child’s playhouse for his absent daughter. In Dolphins of Seville, a man enforces a strict money-saving decree over his wife and family while on a package holiday. In Start in Jan, a home economics teacher whose husband has recently died plays out her grief through the vocabulary of recipe. It is as if these people wish to make machines of themselves. But the glitch in the system is always humanity.
The tension between life’s randomness and life’s orderliness is further bolstered by the style of this collection. Walsh plays with register. The opening of the title story, Shine/Variance feels at first a bit bonkers: “Ok, late, I know was supposed to be home at 1 to pick him up and do this thing and now gone 3 and just getting out of office. In my defence: busy and, if honest, quite challenging morning/afternoon so not fully ready to step into festive season as parting words from James still ringing re Quarter 4 full 14pc off target and deep concerns”. But after a moment it feels perfectly natural. Which is astonishing. What does it say about readers, about language, and about the frantic nature of contemporary life that such a melange of words works?
But if the style of the collection is experimental, the structures of these stories are relatively uniform. We see a character grapple with some or other issue: reach across some fault line, some fissure, and look for a fix. This is overlaid on an extended metaphor, be it a dog’s leash, a riptide in the ocean, or a dolphin tattoo. At times these can feel overly transparent, but for the most part they make the collection immensely readable.
Again, we could ask: why? Is it that we, as readers are reaching for structures, codes, rules, in the form of story, just as much as these characters are?
This food for thought, combined with the collection’s sharpness, poetics and wit make for an immensely pleasurable read. Walsh, who began writing seriously in 2018 and has since been shortlisted for The White Review Short Story Prize, among others, looks to be a writer of great promise.
So, step one: read all stories before proceeding.
Short stories: Shine/Variance by Stephen Walsh
Chatto & Windus, 240 pages, paperback €14.99; e-book £9.99