19 stories, an introduction, an afterword and a glossary of Scottish words (because 2 stories are in Glaswegian). In his introduction he writes "People write for lots of different reasons. Top of my list is the need to make sense of things". The collection's a mixture of first and third person narratives, male and female - mostly internal narrators who think that words will help, albeit retrospectively. Several of these personae are trying to talk themselves into understanding something. In the course of their story, some make progress. In searching for sense, different strategies are adopted
- Some parents are investigated by their children - partly to learn strategies, partly to learn about the self. In "Coping" for example the narrator's mother says "If he'd to go in on a Sunday then I made him sandwiches. I hadn't a clue if he ate them, shared them with his fancy woman or fed them to the swans down the park. I didn't make them for him. They were for me."
- In "Islands" the narrator's not convinced that reasons explain things.
- In "Scent" the narrator says "By making sense, I mean translate well into words. What I was just talking about. Smells work but it's harder to make sense of them.". At the end of that story "It's not until someone pops the right question that the answer makes sense. We spend our entire lives looking for questions to make sense of them. Well, some of us do."
- Some personae have more immediate concerns. In "Disintegration" (which has shades of Godot) there's "Ah jist need tae get through this mornin', that's aw.
Goad? Are ye thur Goad?"
Throughout, there are quotable phrases and paragraphs, though I'm not always sure they're in character
an excuse which is a lie without balls (p.90)
I come from a broken home. When a china plate hits, say, a kitchen wall, it breaks, it shatters into fragments, but when a watch breaks it just dies; you have to look closely to tell. That's what must've happened to my parents' marriage. And just the same as a stopped watch tells the right time twice a day, every now and then things passed for fine at home (p.29)
I left home, as most people do, brimming with ideals, ambitions and with the wrong-end-of-the-stick-completely stuck up my arse. I gazed in awe at the world through eyes that'd seen so little and I described my universe by reference to the tiny island that was moi (p.29)
I don't know about you but I can't make head nor tail of the theory of relativity. What I want to know is what's anyone doing in a train travelling at the speed of light anyway? (p.79)
Though you may feel sorry for some of the characters there are few attempts to tug at your heart-strings. This is due in no small measure to the non-judgemental over-arching viewpoint. Sweet dreams are made of this.
- In the first piece, "√ -1 ", a character's obsessed by numbers - "Thirteen is the sixth prime number and the smallest emirp". I found this interesting because I've written a similar piece about a word-fixated person.
- "Stray" is typical of one type of story here - as much essay as narrative, with an identifiable theme and an ending that neatly meshes into the beginning.
- In "Zeitgeist" the author says that "we have a man whose world's collapsing around him"
- "Katherine and Juliet" is about identity, being classified - "It dawned on me the only thing I had in common with the guy next to me and the guy next to him was my sexuality and that was it" (p.111). It ends with "Jeremy..." "Yes, love...?" "You're drunk." "Quite possibly." - "drunk" being as limited an adjective as "gay" was earlier. But Jeremy killed himself.
- "Objects of Affections and Intention" uses Art to explore identity - people can become objects
My favourites are "Katherine and Juliet" (I like how twins, The Twilight Zone and Kafka are used) and "Objects of Affections and Intention".
The male/female split's about 50/50. The pieces are mostly first-person, though in some of these the main character isn't the narrator - in "Poise", the attention is mostly on "You" (the object of adoration); "Sub Rosa" is more a portrait of Mr Hutchinson, and "Coping" is a portrait of the character's mother.
The third-person pieces adopt different perspectives - "Monsters" has an in-your-face external narrator, the "Tomorrowscape" narrator is in the story as an anonymous observer, and in "Life" there's an external narrator too
These narrators are sometimes aware of their role -
- On p.39 the narrator says "and I think that's where the point to this story lies".
- "The plot of this story should be straightforward" (p.45)
- "I should point out I found out about all of this at a much later date. I'm not part of the story yet" (p.118)
- "Now befaw we go too fah down dis road let's you and me get a few tings straight: I'm yer narratah ... whad I say goes" (p.125)
In "Monsters" especially but also in "Scent" the reader's directly addressed.
Beginnings and endings
In several of the stories the theme hinted at in the title is picked up in the first sentence and returned to at the end, as this crude table illustrates -
|√ -1||It was not a nervous breakdown||It is not so until you believe it to be so|
|Poise||You could never be a model||It might've been but there's always tomorrow|
|Funny Strange||Oi, I've got a new joke fer you||I could do wiv a good laugh|
|Coping||If there's one thing that annoys me about my mother it's this: she watches life with the sound off||My mother's happy and I should be happy for her. I should and I do try. I really do|
|Stray||Home||that can't see itself as anything more than a stray. I expect that's been me all along|
|Objects of Affection and Intention||I'd always suspected David hadn't asked me to move in with him simply due to my wry sense of humour and decadent personality||"Only if there's raffia involved"|
|Life||The plot of this story should be straightforward - boy meets girl, they fall in love, get married and settle down to start a family - but that's never it, is it?||"I couldn't get you out of my mind" "Really? I'd much the same problem."|
|Failing||I'd always expected one day I'd feel this click inside, from OFF to ON, and I'd go, yes now's the right time to start thinking about having kids||Maybe he quit too soon|
|Zeitgeist||Ma wife sez Ah'm too serious||Ye'er aw right|
|Islands||Nowadays people make too much of a thing out of being touched||Sometimes I wish I was a poet. I think that might be easier to live with|
|Scent||My mam once said, "There's a bad bit in you"||You should thank me. You really should|
|Sub Rosa||Mr Hutchinson was a peculiarly private person, not that I'm suggesting for one minute there's anything wrong with valuing one's privacy, but it does set tongues wagging||The rest is private|
|Silence||All men're the same - a few bubbles short of a bath, so some women say - but it's not true||Jenny? If you can hear me: night, night, pet. I love you|
|Disintegration||He'll be here by half seven||Goad? Are ye thur Goad?|
|Tomorrowscape||The future, if you think about it as simply another place to go you've never gone before, is bound to have its ups and downs||Maybe it was funny once but not anymore - not in the slightest|
|Katherine and Juliet||I first met Katie when I was sixteen||"You're drunk" "Quite possibly"|
|First Time||They say you never forget your first||Now, let me tell you about my second time|
|Jewelweed||One would've thought that a prerequisite for being a schoolteacher, even before one starts to consider academic qualifications and relevant experience, might be a fondness for, or at least not a total loathing of, children||I'll take her a wee sherry in a bit, when the time's right|
|Monsters||Now befaw we go too fah down dis road let's you and me get a few tings straight: I'm yer narratah||It's all yer gettin' outta me in any case so ya can shovawf now. Gowan. Beat it|