Book Review: In Lieu of a Memoir

“This is a work of the author’s imagination […] Even the author is a figment of the author’s imagination.”

Tadhg Muller may or may not exist. In this collection of short stories his narrator shares episodes from his life – autofiction – that remain riddled with inconsistencies. The effect is destabilising as foundations are created and then shifted. At times the experiences related are quite base and graphic, which would normally put me off reading. However, there is so much wit and humour within these pages I remained entertained.

Interspersed with the stories are notes, written as if by the Editor, who also writes the introduction. In this he explains that the tales cover a period in the author’s life when he was living in London. They represent an existence fraught with financial worries – meagre food, housing, and a succession of energy sapping jobs offering little reward. Tadhg claimed to have arrived in the city after a hasty exit from the Islamic Republic. The collection opens with a dream recounting his escape.

That the author is writing stories is occasionally mentioned (meta, but go with it). The Editor recalls an encounter at a bookshop in Bethnal Green that Tadhg nearly missed, despite being down to give a reading.

“I was so overwhelmed by the mass of people outside the bookshop when I arrived, I paused to consider my next move, thought about cutting and running,” he confessed with tight-eyed gravity, “then a double-decker came, and the footpath cleared.”

One of the stories sets out an attempt to join a writers’ group in London. The group has guidelines as to who it is aimed at, those it will welcome.

“They declared they were “a friendly group of writers.” I then read that not everyone could become a member.”

In retaliation, the narrator attempts to set up a rival group. This trundles along ineffectively until he loses his job at a bakery after insulting his boss, a fellow writer, who is “working hard to meet the deadline imposed by insatiable penguins.”

“Still working on this crap? I said.
She sat back obviously stunned, obviously wounded, but mostly just aware of the truth of my statement.
You’re fired, Tadhg.
I nodded and thanked her and so walked out, past the Tartar who offered me one last smile, then closed the door on that world, a world that was a far greater lie than all the fictions I’d concocted.”

The author regularly pokes fun at the pretensions of self-appointed elites. An artist who has achieved preeminence is observed to have been granted “deification amongst the London cultural establishment”. Staff in a coffee shop who serve this artist are “sunned by his eccentricity”. The narrator is determined not to fall victim to such behaviour.

“He paused, and turned his head to take a better look at me, opened his eyes wide, very wide, wider than usual. He’d realised I’d anticipated his behaviour. He realised he’d been anticipated.”

There are stories during which the narrator seeks shelter with a friend. At times he is trying to support a wife and child. In others he is alone. Jobs change but the struggle to make a living continues. He writes of encounters with a variety of characters, some struggling and others whose supposed success he despises.

“Mr M took us – us being the main players – to a cafe for a debrief. There he settled into his allocated role, shifted to instruction, and authority, his sense of isolation in the world and amongst others only broken by the execution of authority, I imagined his folk had done it for a thousand years or more.”

What is offered in this collection is a picture of life in the city through the piercing eyes of a narrator who is trying to find a way of fitting in without compromising what he is. Or maybe he would have been willing to compromise had a break been offered. The reader cannot know because of the shifting nature of the writing. What in lesser hands may be pure pathos becomes humorous without losing the bite of the difficulties faced. It is a cleverly constructed and rewarding read.

In Lieu of a Memoir is published by Open Pen.

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