Book Review: Above the Fat

Above the Fat, by Thomas Chadwick, is a collection of eleven short stories, a few of which are just a page or two in length. They tell of people inhabiting places where they do not feel satisfied or comfortable. They offer snapshots of lives that have not panned out as once envisaged.

The opening story, A train passes through the Ruhr region in the early morning, recounts a journey as a list of items or places viewed along the way. There is little commentary, although what there is had me laughing out loud by the end.

This segues effortlessly into Birch which tells the story of Stuart who is managing a timber yard in the late 1990s. Having inherited the well established business from his father, Stuart gradually instigates changes. There is a whisper of tension running throughout as the reader awaits his downfall. Not everything happens as expected.

And the Glass Cold Against His Face plays out over five minutes during which a window cleaner clings to a ledge eighty floors up from street level. Discovering he is not alone precipitates several awkward exchanges. It is a scenario that is unlikely to end well.

Purchase presents the difficulties inherent in finding clothes or food that meet expectations. Customers accept such disappointments, complaining to each other later. The couple involved cannot seem to navigate seemingly simple decisions yet readers will recognise what is depicted.

Stan, Standing is the story of a man preparing to attend his brother’s wedding. He does not appear to be looking forward to the event and, as excerpts from the family history are revealed, the reasons become clear.

Death Valley Junction is set in an American diner where a hungry traveller is waiting to be fed.

“Five people, four burgers. This one must be his. He stared out the window across the flat sand that shuddered in the midday heat. Breathed. Waited.”

A Sense of Agency and Red Sky at Night both deal with climate change. The former portrays a flooded London and a man still in denial, despite the water lapping at his feet. The latter has its protagonist allowing any pleasure in life to be drained by his determination to partake in some form of penance.

Bill Mathers is a list detailing a novelist, critic and angler’s views on fish, family and famous writers. Little is flattering.

Above the Fat is the story of a chef who returns to his childhood home after years spent acquiring fashionable skills around the world. He takes a job at a local hostelry and attempts to introduce clientele to the joys of good food. In the time it takes him to fry the perfect egg he contemplates the reasons he has ended up in a place where the locals eschew his flavoursome dishes, demanding simple burgers cooked to their tastes.

The collection closes with a half page description of The Beach at Oostende on a December evening. It is evocative and lingering.

The writing throughout has a haunting undercurrent. There is pathos in characters abandonment of their younger selves. Shadowed situations engender empathy and recognition. In both the ordinary and the more surreal, simple actions lead to disturbance. Much is contained and elicited within each sentence; years of experience captured within fleeting reactions.

This entirely enjoyable collection offers depth and emotive complexity. It is an original and satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Splice.

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Book Review: Hang Him When He Is Not There

From the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses 2019 longlist – Hang Him When He Is Not There by Nicholas John Turner.

This book is disorientating. It reads as a series of short stories that the reader expects will eventually interlink – it is, after all, described as a novel. Some chapters are more straightforward than others. Some are distinctly weird. A threatening undercurrent weaves itself through the pages, shadows not quite glimpsed in passing. There is a viciousness to certain thoughts and interactions. Few of the characters are likable, not that this is necessary.

Settings vary but include: a care home, a vineyard, an apartment crowded by books, a decaying family home, rooms let to tourists by an elderly lady. A proof reader travels to meet a reclusive author; in later stories we learn more about their lives. A chapter tells of two brothers on holiday; they reappear in the background of another tale. Books and how they are read are a recurring feature – meta considering the challenge of pinning down what this book is saying.

One theme I plucked from the many permutations of characters’ narrative and observations was the disturbance felt on registering that a person one is close to is not as thought and treated as, perhaps for many years. It is impossible to fully understand all that goes on inside another’s head and one is rarely the centre of another’s universe however much they appear attentive and to revere.

I pondered if the author is offering a work that demands readers change and change again their interpretations as they progress through its pages.

The Mystics chapter was particularly challenging to read due to the brutality. Sexual or bodily explicit scenes throughout offer nothing pleasant. People within these stories are not conventionally good looking – flaws are described vividly. There is the suggestion of personal darkness that few acknowledge, an innate coarseness veneered by observers as much as self.

So, what was the author trying to convey in writing this way?

“I’ll do better than to tell you about a dream I had. I’ll tell you how it was to have this dream. But not before telling you how it was to recall having had it. Everything is everything.”

There are obvious plays with language and form. More was gleaned on a second reading. Ultimately though this was a book that left me perplexed and somewhat frustrated, despite best efforts. The intricacies offered were tantalisingly elusive, viewed through a glass darkly. I wonder if this was intended.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Splice.

Guest post by independent publisher, Splice

As part of my coverage of this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small presses I invited a number of the publishers whose books made it onto the longlist to contribute a guest post. I also offered to review the books should they wish to send me a copy. Throughout February I will be posting these reviews and the articles or Q&As received from the presses that responded. These offer a window into the variety of output and current state of play of the innovative publishers whose books I am always eager to read.

Today I welcome Daniel from Splice whose book, Hang Him When He Is Not There by Nicholas John Turner, I will be reviewing tomorrow.

The first thing to know about Splice, for readers who have found it recently, is that the small press is only one part of its activities. The second thing to know is that it’s not a commercial enterprise; it’s a not-for-profit organisation. This means that its remit is a lot broader than simply publishing books and making some money off sales and prizes. There’s more to it than that, but naturally you’ll need to take a step back to see the bigger picture.

I set up Splice in 2017 with just one idea in mind: I wanted to create a system for supporting the production of formally unconventional literature. Let me define some of those terms. By “formally unconventional literature” I mean books of any type (short stories, novels, essays, memoirs, etc.) that somehow push the boundaries of style and structure, whether subtly or in revolutionary ways, adopting and defending their own terms of formal “success”. I didn’t grow up in an especially literary household, and in fact literature didn’t begin to speak to me until I was in my twenties and out of university, so the notion of literature as some sort of refined pleasure, or something with cultural cachet, is absolutely anathema to me; it doesn’t jibe with my gut feeling. I like value irreverence, iconoclasm, edginess, messiness, stylistic abandon, wilful disregard and even disparagement of literary politesse. If a work of literature plays by the rules stylistically and structurally, I’m flat-out not interested. I don’t care how provocative its subject matter might be; a book’s “success”, for me, is entirely a question of its aesthetics and their deviation from the centre of the literary landscape.

Two more key terms and then I’ll get to the heart of Splice. By “system” I mean a series of interlocking mechanisms that could offer support to these sorts of books at different stages on their journey from the mind of a writer to the hands of readers. And by “supporting the production” of these books, I mean supporting the authors who write them — but this is a very complex, multifaceted activity, and it’s worth looking at some of the nuances.

To my mind, support for an author isn’t worth much if it doesn’t help the author take a step towards writing something new in future, beyond whatever work that has captured your attention here and now. At the same time, chances of future work greatly diminish if the current work isn’t accorded some value and future possibilities aren’t invested in from the get-go. So, in setting up Splice, I knew I had to create a system that would do at least five things in order to realise my one overriding goal:

  • It had to pay writers up-front, offering a fee as a reward for the labour that has already produced the work. No royalties-only arrangements, where all income is contingent on sales, but something to recognise that the work already has value.
  • It had to pay writers on an ongoing basis, in a way that recognised them as co- creators. That means fifty per cent royalties, higher than an industry standard of ten per cent, from the sale of the very first copy, with no advance to earn out.
  • It had to commission future work from writers at the same time as arranging the publication of their early work, guaranteeing no-strings-attached publication and an additional fee. As a result, Splice’s standard contract for its small press authors involves purchasing publication rights for an existing manuscript and pre-arranging the purchase of two new, as-yet-unwritten works of prose — one for the website and one for the Splice anthology — with extra cash attached.

These three planks of Splice form the basis of all its activities in print, i.e. the small press publications and the anthology. That’s because they do the lion’s share of the tasks I mentioned above, according value to an author’s current work and investing in future work sight unseen. But still, in sketching out the various components of Splice, I realised it couldn’t fulfil its purpose if it didn’t do at least two other things:

  • It had to go to bat for authors of formally unconventional literature even if it wasn’t publishing them, and even if something that would benefit an author published by Splice would work to the detriment of Splice itself. This is a large part of why Splice is a not-for-profit enterprise; there’s just a huge amount of advisory work and advocacy work going on behind the scenes, pro bono. This includes providing detailed editorial advice to authors whose manuscripts have merit but won’t be purchased by Splice; alerting writers to opportunities for grants, bursaries, and workshop opportunities, which can help them to access further remuneration for their work, and assisting with their applications; liaising with publishers overseas who may be interested in acquiring territorial rights to titles, in cases where Splice doesn’t stand to profit because the rights still reside with the author; and so on. There are many more people involved with Splice than can be seen on the surface, and much of the pro bono work entails striking connections, soliciting feedback, helping people get together to help one another — again, with an eye on the future. And ultimately, on Splice’s terms, it would be a success, not a disappointment, if our authors ended up jumping ship and publishing their next books with bigger presses, just as long as they’re not compromising on their unconventional aesthetic visions.
  • It had to reward writers of formally unconventional literature published by other publishers, especially other small presses that take chances on adventurous work, by offering them a degree of serious attention they don’t typically receive. This is the rationale behind Splice’s online activities: we publish at least one long review of a recent book each week, at least 2,000 words in length, and we often supplement the review with an author or translator interview. On one level, it’s a real morale booster for these writers to have their work read in depth and written about at length in an intelligent way, rather than as a superficial publicity exercise. On another level, this can also yield further financial rewards for writers, and thereby help them to snag an investment in future work, because grants and bursaries often require applications to be supplemented with serious, insightful reviews. And on yet another level — which takes up probably one-third of my time — it allows literary critics of great skill to exercise their talents and get paid for it as well. It is excruciatingly difficult to be a critic with a knack for writing these sorts of reviews; it’s even more difficult when you don’t get paid for your work, and when you don’t get the editorial support and encouragement you need to keep going. The Splice website exists as a platform to reward these critics, to commission future work from them as well, to honour their abilities as creative readers and writers — and to acknowledge the indispensable role they play in sourcing, appraising, and adding to the value of exciting new books.

I suppose you could read back over all the things I’ve just said about Splice and think it’s all hokum, overly technical, or too industry-centric, or whatever. But the bottom line is that I believe passionately and absolutely in the value of formally unconventional literature — I’m driven by an evangelising zeal for it — and I’m anxious to do whatever I can to see more of it come into being, to not let authors become dispirited because their work isn’t taken seriously, to not let them fall silent just because their books don’t sell enough to allow them to quit their day jobs. Splice was conceived as a means to that end.

One last note on this point: if you want proof of all this, you’ll find it in the system of Splice itself. If you’ve heard me on the Republic of Consciousness Podcast, or you follow Splice on Twitter, you’ll know that I handle all the editorial stuff while the logistics (slush pile sifting, royalty payments, postage, contracts, etc.) are dealt with by Alec Dewar. I came to know Alec in the months before Splice started publishing online. He’s a young academic based in Scotland, specialising in Scandinavian literature, and I approached him in the dying days of 2017 to ask him if he’d be interested in reviewing a bevy of Icelandic titles that were due to be published throughout 2018. He agreed, in principle, but on two conditions. He hadn’t written for a non-academic audience before, so he needed some hands-on guidance, and he also wanted an opportunity to try out other things as he planned to leave academia. Long story short, in exchange for being able to delegate a lot of the day-to-day stuff to Alec, I arranged to mentor him in his reviewing activities for Splice. In other words, the advisory and advocacy responsibilities of Splice are baked into the structure of it, even at the level of the people who run it with me. And I’ve learned a great deal from Alec, too, such that I’ve now built in a mentoring “scheme” for young critics as part of my editorial activities, helping newcomers to build a portfolio of high-quality work as reviewers and essayists.

Again, there’s nothing to be gained from this financially — it costs Splice money to pay for something like MacKenzie Warren’s recent long essay on Nocilla Lab — but the benefit, in terms of Splice’s mission, is  immense. I get to hone my Socratic skills by pushing MacKenzie to look closer, dig deeper, keep writing, find another way of saying this or that. MacKenzie ends up with a piece of high-quality criticism, plus some cash for her efforts, and hopefully Fitzcarraldo Editions and Agustín Fernández Mallo and the translator Thomas Bunstead get a financial kickback, and some extra prestige, as part of the same exercise. Ultimately, the winners are readers who appreciate formally unconventional literature, either because they become aware of Nocilla Lab or because they have a new perspective on it, a little bit of added value for their £12.99, and so Splice functions exactly as it was intended to do.

It’s hard to say how things have changed in publishing since I started, because Splice is only eighteen months old and its small press activities are even younger than that, but I’ve certainly been surprised by some of the things I’ve seen since I started looking under the bonnet. There are a few questionable practices, to be sure, but most of all I’ve been surprised — and humbled — by the staggering generosity of small press publishers who share the spirit of Splice, even if not in a codified way. There are plenty of publishers who’ve offered me advice and support when they have no financial incentive to do so, purely because they love the art of literature and want to help kindle the flames no matter where they may be burning. I reckon that at least half of the small press economy is powered by charity, goodwill, and quid pro quos, with publishers copping a hit (sometimes financially, certainly in terms of energy) so they can raise the standards of the entire small press scene, with no expectation of material rewards. There are a lot of unsung heroes out there — a great many more than I imagined when I was watching this scene develop from the outside.

Prize listings are beautiful things, especially the Republic of Consciousness Prize and the Goldsmiths Prize, because, much as Splice is intended to do, they raise the profiles of formally unconventional books and bring them to the attention of new readers. My experience with them is limited, of course, since Hang Him When He Is Not There is only the first title from Splice to be longlisted for a prize, but across the board I have to say that the entry costs and conditions are reasonable except for major awards like the Costa and the Booker Prize. Splice has also entered books into the Edge Hill Prize, the Desmond Elliot Prize, the James Tait Black Prize, and other competitions, and none of these have ever threatened to break the bank. Moreover, the potential rewards are wonderful. The longlisting for Hang Him has certainly garnered the book some new readers, and I hope it will also act as a springboard for it to reach other parts of the world.

Since Splice has such particular and idiosyncratic foundations, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that it also has an unusual future — at least insofar as I can picture it. Perhaps this is  a silly thing to admit, but I’ll admit it anyway: when I was putting together a cadre of writers for Splice, approaching critics and authors to see who was interested in signing up, my model was Nick Fury bringing together the Avengers. And that’s still the case because, like Fury, my ultimate aim is to step away from Splice and let all parties involved in it continue to run it collectively. I founded it as a five-year initiative for myself, creating it in a way that would allow me to disseminate some institutional knowledge to various other people and open up windows for yet more people to own a stake in it, and at the end of those five years I want to shepherd it from a two-person not-for-profit into a co-operative enterprise. I’m hoping to do this by liaising with editorial programmes at universities and creating a mechanism for editorial transparency, so that students of publishing (that is, editors-in-waiting) will be able to watch me running Splice, alongside Alec, as if through a one-way mirror. I also want to step up fundraising activities so that we have a subscription model for our books, as well as a Patreon-style system in which financial contributions at different tiers will give people shares in the Splice co-operative, including voting rights and a say on editorial matters. And I want to continuously increase the rates of payment for everyone who writes for Splice. It remains to be seen whether all of this is achievable by, say, 2022, but I’m hopeful, I’m encouraged by the raw passion I see from those who appreciate small press titles, and I’m not the kind of person who likes to say “no”. My door is always open to anyone who wants to be involved in any way, and if Splice is to have a long-term future, I’ll keep it open as long as I can to ensure that everything ends up in safe hands.

Find out more about Splice on their website

You may also wish to follow them on Twitter: @thisissplice 

Book Review: Flare and Falter

Flare and Falter, by Michael Conley, is a collection of thirty-five short stories which present a somewhat cynical interpretation of man’s reaction to a wide variety of imaginative scenarios. Many are disturbing but all are written with an underlying dark humour. They brought to mind short stories by M. John Harrison but offer more clearly pertinent and piercing insights. They are, in a nutshell, brilliantly written.

The book opens with a memorable first line:

“He wakes to an echoing quack.”

This first story is titled Antidaephobia, a word that I was entertained to discover means “The fear that somewhere, somehow, a duck is watching you”. Throughout the narrative is the question of whether the duck exists. As with many tales in the collection what emerges could be interpreted as metaphorical. In trying to avoid a fear, it breeds.

If the beginning of this first story drew me into the collection it was the final line in the second offering, Marked, that had me hooked. The alphabet falls from the sky permanently marking all it lands on. Although at first newsworthy, the world quickly moves on with people accepting change and continuing with their lives. In their lack of curiosity as to what the strange event may mean, what has been missed?

There are many stories that resonate with current events. When It Starts explores the suppression of news, Krill Rations the suppression of freedom.

The God Quetzalcoatl Has Retired and Now Runs a Pub in South Manchester is exactly what it says in the lengthy title. The god settles into life on earth, observing the behaviour of his pub clientele. He registers to vote in an election but then questions the wisdom of the exercise – of democracy itself.

“He doesn’t think much of either main party, but he does notice that the most objectionable people in the pub all seem to belong to the same side, so he registers in order to vote for their opponents. He marks his x with a pencil tied to a piece of string […] He looks at the pencil, the string. How can we be trusted to elect leaders if we can’t be trusted not to walk off with the fucking pencil?”

A number of stories reference the same character – a feared despot – and progress from the point of view of one of his body doubles. Given how many of these tyrants are currently in power around the world it is hard to guess which provided the inspiration.

Other stories explore reactions to beings considered different. Man likes to feel superior. When his position is threatened, violence ensues.

Toddler Ninety-Six is deliciously disturbing. A child in a scientific experiment does not behave as expected, however long they are given. The reaction of those who observe this quiet rebellion is disquieting and believable.

There is a series of stories involving robots which begin with the trope of lifelike and apparently submissive female ‘dolls’. Men may be drawn to violence if faced with an invading army wielding guns and explosives. They become easily overpowered when apparently consequence free sex is made available.

Robots also appear as waitresses, the predictable algorithms under which they operate generating anger from those who resent their presence. In Amok one man enacts a small, angry and futile mutiny when faced with such technology.

In Speed Dating this is taken a step further. People become paranoid about being tricked into dating “one of them”. Is this a necessary step to ensure the continuation of the race or a metaphor for supremacists who resent encroachment by or acceptance of any they deem different and therefore threatening?

The dying of bees is explored with a suggestion that robotic bees – “wound up during the night by poor people” – may be a solution if this serves to benefit senior staff at the Ministry. Bee keepers are regarded as troublesome and therefore expendable.

“Real bees would exist only in poetry.”

Dispatches From the Last Great War of Good vs. Evil questions how to define good and evil. As war progresses, atrocities on both sides increase as each enacts desperate bids for the upper hand, whatever the consequences.

Silence Is Golden depicts an inexplicable cruelty. If such behaviour were not known to happen it would be hard to believe, being senseless and upsetting.

Man’s selfishness is demonstrated to fine effect in All The Little Yous. The world is changed for the better, for all but one person. Those who feel hard done by will not always accept a wider good.

The People looks at the variety and multitude of street protests.

“The only ones who never get involved are the people wearing expensive suits, who remain in their high-rise apartments, silently high-fiving and taking all the most exhilarating drugs.”

There are stories of parents and children, the variations in how they come to regard the other due to perceived selfishness. There are stories of relationships in which casual and disturbing cruelties are accepted because this is now how society operates, whatever disquiet is privately felt.

As for the War ponders how a remote community may be reached when roads are impassable for most of the year.

“nobody has yet been up the mountain to tell the people of the village who to hate and why”

Kraken explores the national reaction when a murderous creature attaches itself to a bridge and feeds on passers by. The eventual solution to the problem is short term. Man’s approach to nature may not be deliberately malevolent but is usually short sighted and focused on the problems of today rather than longer term effects.

Not all the tales deal with such serious subjects. Who Are International Moon Team takes a delightful swipe at music fans who are convinced their knowledge and taste, especially if not pandering to widely enjoyed pop culture, is significant and superior.

Many of the stories are a mere page or two in length yet provide recognisable slices of life while asking apposite questions. Familiar problems and scenarios are presented in weird and wonderful confections. This is a clever, at times twisted, but always entertaining read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Splice.

Book Review: Our Dreams Might Align

Our Dreams Might Align, by Dana Diehl, is a collection of sixteen short stories and the first book to be released by Splice, a new Birmingham based small press. The collection explores the challenges and complexities of relationships along with their inherent loneliness. Descriptions are rich, often dreamlike. Human life is portrayed as a search for hope beyond what is currently being experienced. Lovers feel conflicted when they realise each desires differing outcomes. Parents and children grow apart as they seek paths the other has no wish to traverse.

Astronauts tells the story of a family dealing with its patriarch’s journey to outer space. The mother is left to cope alone with their son while her husband goes adventuring. She misses him yet adapts to his absence. On his return she must accept that this experience will be the pivotal moment of his life. Her hopes and dreams remain shadowed by his legend.

Burn looks at the relationship between two sisters. The younger had wanted to be just like the elder but has been hurt by a lack of perceived loyalty in the past – care for sisterly feelings. In projecting expectations the younger feels let down and seeks signs of regret in her sibling. It is her own needs that have shaped how she regards her sister’s behaviour.

Swarm tells the story of newly weds who move to a remote ranch straight from their wedding. After the excitement and bustle of preparation, the wife must face a future with a husband whose plans may not readily align with her’s. She is now a girl with a boy, the trajectory of her life, the decision she makes, tied to his needs.

“She felt the slope of her life plateau. Getting married had been so easy, everything moving toward it, marriage the next obvious step, no one asking what happened in the after.”

Another Time offers a variety of alternative endings for  the reader to choose from. I enjoyed reading each of these and pondering the directions life can take following an event or decision, often unexpected.

To Date a Time Traveler looks at selfishness in a relationship between two college students. The girl finds the boy interesting and supports his choices and actions, neglecting her friends. It is not long until she realises how little her needs are now being considered as their day to day actions increasingly revolve around him.

The Mother is one of several stories that explores the parent and child relationship, where desired and loved children are born and raised but then gain independence.

“a mother’s body is a house full of rooms that are always being left”

Once He Was a Man takes a wry look at the desire for immortality. A husband buys into a technological promise that his essence will be uploaded into an everlasting beam of light that will travel through infinity. His wife is more sceptical.

“What does a beam of light do all day?”

Going Mean looks at another marriage where the wife feels shackled by her husband’s expectations of her compliance. She looks to the dangerous forest behind their home and ponders the trade-off between safety and freedom.

Loneliness within relationships is a recurring theme. Individuals project their hopes onto loved ones. Expectations of other’s behaviour leads to disillusionment. For reasons unknown there are numerous references to being within the belly of a whale, including one story in which brothers end up there. Wild creatures feature in many of the tales.

The writing is fluid and engaging. Although somewhat bleak, the relationships depicted are recognisable and cleverly presented. These imaginative portrayals were a pleasure to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Splice – do check out their work:

Website: What is Splice?
Twitter: @thisissplice