Monday, August 20, 2012

Collection of gentle weirdos

Book: Speaking with the Angel

Author: various (edited by Nick Hornby)

Published: 2000 (Penguin collection)

Pages: 231

For the first time in about two books (as I read chronologically and don't give two figs about publishing schedules), Nick Hornby didn't disappoint me. Possibly because he wrote one of the stories here, made it a touchingly quirky reflection on how art can forge unexpected bonds with its audience, and gathered a bunch of his British-y friends to write similar incidences about life's details from interesting points of view.

Hornby's story takes an ex-bouncer looking to get out of the nightclub business and put him in charge of a controversial work of art. After a few days of fending off the crazies and staring at the canvas, the guy feels like he and the picture understand each other, which makes him feel all the worse when someone finally manages to sneak in and do some damage. What the guy can't understand is that the artist actually wanted that to happen; the guy thinks the work itself was so much better a statement of finding something sacred in weird places. But what does he know? He's just an ex-bouncer they hired to keep people from smearing sandwiches into the carpet. 

That tied very closely with Giles Smith's entry, which is a prison cook talking about how she prepares last meals for the prisoners who are to be executed. The cook illuminates the absurdity of it by treating it as all very matter-of-fact and ruminating on why more of the condemned want hamburgers and fries instead of proper home-cooked meals, and the ending quietly brings home the horrifying truth of the whole process without any melodramatics. The cook forgets something, runs back in, and sees the plate come back without anything eaten from it. It made me wonder how much this happens and if the cook's just realizing the implications of it herself.

Colin Firth, surprisingly, also does a really good job of going meta but staying literal about how fanciful stories can form bonds and help people get through hard times. I salute his refusal to take this into the literal fairy world because that would be a cop-out. As it stands, the boy who's survived school by listening to his grandma tell stories and now has to face her death has to face real life with the tools he's given and can't just step away from it all. 

And lessee here...Melissa Blank's relationship ultra-realism stands up a lot better in short format where it can bump over that small climax without needing to carry the extra weight of another 190 pages; Irvine Welsh has a fierce, savage sense of justice; Zadie Smith parallels physical and emotional growth while demonstrating how they never seem to stick to the same pace. Oh, and if you want to know the career trajectory of a mime, John O'Farrell tells you all about it from a "superstar" of the art.

Read more short story collections that manage to forget about Literary Aspirations and get down to the interesting characters in normal settings or weird characters in normal settings. Get to it!

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