Dazzling the Gods, by Tom Vowler, is a collection of sixteen short stories. These are followed by Acknowledgements that offer a tantalising glimpse of plotlines that cry out to be expanded, which the author suggests is exactly where some of his tales have come from. He writes in rich, evocative prose and is not averse to commenting on his fellow writers and their craft. His observations on this, and the other themes he explores, are incisive.
In Lucca: Last Days of a Marriage, where the protagonist, who is an editor, contemplates the book he has been tasked with completing following the death of its author, he writes:
“What struck him most when he first read Pollex was that he could write, really write; so many books he edited were conceptually and structurally and tonally strong, would sell in significant number, but which neglected the music of a sentence, its ability to be affective rather than merely expository. Abstract instead of just literal. Pollex, he felt, troubled his sentences into existence, cared for them as one might a prized possession, or one’s child. He was a stylist who, until Lucca at any rate, knew when to get out of a sentence, knew when lyricism became onanism.”
Many of the stories are searing, their subjects’ suffering a backdrop that requires no further exposition. The reader is trusted to understand, perhaps to empathise. The plots play out how life goes on.
An Arrangement portrays a marriage where a husband’s illness has rendered him largely bedridden. They have agreed that the wife may occasionally seek solace elsewhere, the husband understanding her sacrifice and trying to be generous. Their pain is palpable as each tries to tamp down selfish needs. The suffering caused by chronic, debilitating illness has many aspects affecting all involved.
Fly, Icarus, Fly opens with two young brothers who are with friends planning to steal birds’ eggs from nests, the casual cruelty to living creatures and boyish jostling for acceptance within a group all too real. When an accident puts paid to the afternoon’s wicked entertainment there remains the question of the cruelties inflicted on people, why the life of one creature is held sacrosanct when others are so thoughtlessly, or sometimes compassionately, terminated.
Certain of the stories are shocking, again without need for explication. Scene Forty-Seven is timely in out #metoo era – a director attempting to garner attention whatever the cost to his actors.
At the Musée d‘Orsay also explores the direction certain artists take, their need to shock to gain notice, and the complicity of those who support them. The privileged polish their vanities, their wish to be regarded as cultured, included in a rarefied world and at the cutting edge. This leads them to wax lyrical about grotesques, imagining them somehow worthy. It is their own standing they care about. In this story they take old friends along in an attempt to impress. Their hollowness is recognised yet set aside rather than being called out, the shocking truth denied in an attempt to avoid admitting connivance.
The Offspring Badge is a mix of mordant honesty and self-recriminatory poignancy. A recently divorced woman visits her first love in what appears to be his perfect, family home. Their history is significant given how their subsequent lives have played. Within the careful charade of politeness are the woman’s unspoken, caustic observations. Her lover has thrived while she has not. Her reason for visiting appears more flagellation than friendly curiosity.
Undertow is a story of survival. From an almost derelict house a man watches as a woman enters the sea and is dragged under. He rushes to her aid. There remains the unspoken question of why he did so when life remains harsh and challenging. Unlike many of the tales in the collection, this is one of hope rather than stoicism.
Short stories offer snapshots of lives and each of these are largely recognisable. There are elements of the surreal in places, such as the conclusion of Upgrade. Mostly though these tales are representative of man in his many inglorious attempts to shine. The redolent prose, imaginative portrayals and sympathetic rendering make them well worth reading.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Unbound.