Friday, July 23, 2010

I recently finished Emmett Stinson's "Known Unknowns" - the latest in Affirm Press' Long Story Shorts series. I enjoyed the book greatly. Emmett writes like a writer, and that is no mere tautology. He's a writer who makes you trust him to the point that when he does indulge in some wild experimental excursion , you're willing to follow along, assured that he is still in control, even if on occasion you might feel a little lost! Emmett's a smart guy and his fiction reads that way: it's clever and challenging and absolutely contemporary in its sensibilities. For me the combination of street-wise edge (shades of Thomas Pynchon's 'V') with elegant, razor-sharp prose is very appealing. I think my favourite story was "The Sound of the Fury". It's worth the proverbial price of admission for the title (understood in context) and the last line alone.

My only gripe with the collection are the few moments when the heavy fingerprints of academia smudge the otherwise pristine prose. Academia is so often about proving you're clever enough to master the argot, and there were just a few moments in this collection where I felt the author was trying to impress me with his cleverness. In the Age Short Story Competition winning "All Fathers The Father", for example, we get a brief serve of Lacan's theory on the role of the father, followed up by the ironical observation that it's all "a load of horseshit". So why bring it up? To dazzle the reader with ideas that the author's dismissal seems to imply he is too clever for? Don't get me wrong, I loved this story in so many ways, but I remain unconvinced that the short story is the right forum for excursions into academic philosophy. By all means, provoke thought, but let's leave Lacan in the Baillieu, please.

Nevertheless, I strongly recommend you go buy the book. It's not always easy, but it is funny, it is surprising, it is intelligent and you'll definitely know you've just read the work of a real writer. Can't wait for Emmett's novel. I just hope he doesn't try too hard.

On my own writing front, jazz-focussed literary journal Extempore will be publishing my story 'The Thief', the tale of a jazz guitarist in the sixties running from commitment into a desolate future. The story was an example of how long it can take to shape a story. I actually submitted the story that 'The Thief' was based on to Extempore's short story competition in 2008, where it got precisely nowhere. I knew it wasn't right, and I think I must have written six different incarnations of the same story before finally nailing down this one. It was a case of fiction winning over over reality. The story started as a sort of melancholy ode to my old jazz guitar teacher Peter Roberts, who died of a stroke probably ten years ago. It ended up as a purely imaginative riff based on something he said to me once about hearing Procul Harem's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" for the first time. That happens to me increasingly these days: a root in the solid earth of autobiography puts forth an entirely fabulous tree.

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