Short Stories in September, Part II: Tove Jansson, Brandon Taylor, Eley Williams

Each September I make a special effort to read short stories, which otherwise tend to languish on my shelves and TBR unread. After my first four reviewed last week, I have another three wonderfully different collections, ranging from bittersweet children’s fantasy in translation to offbeat, wordplay-filled love notes via linked stories suffused with desire and desperation.

 

Tales from Moominvalley by Tove Jansson (1962; 1963)

[Trans. from the Swedish by Thomas Warburton]

I only discovered the Moomins in my late twenties, but soon fell in love with the quirky charm of Jansson’s characters and their often melancholy musings. Her stories feel like they can be read on multiple levels, with younger readers delighting in the bizarre creations and older ones sensing the pensiveness behind their quests. There are magical events here: Moomintroll discovers a dragon small enough to be kept in a jar; laughter is enough to bring a fearful child back from literal invisibility. But what struck me more was the lessons learned by neurotic creatures. In “The Fillyjonk who believed in Disasters,” the title character fixates on her belongings—

“we are so very small and insignificant, and so are our tea cakes and carpets and all those things, you know, and still they’re important, but always they’re threatened by mercilessness…”

—but when a gale and a tornado come and sweep it all away, she experiences relief and joy:

“the strange thing was that she suddenly felt quite safe. It was a very strange feeling, and she found it indescribably nice. But what was there to worry about? The disaster had come at last.”

My other favourite was “The Hemulen who loved Silence.” After years as a fairground ticket-taker, he can’t wait to retire and get away from the crowds and the noise, but once he’s obtained his precious solitude he realizes he needs others after all. The final story, “The Fir Tree,” is a lovely Christmas one in which the Moomins, awoken midway through their winter hibernation, get caught up in seasonal stress and experience the holiday for the first time. (Public library)

 

Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor (2021)

Real Life was one of my five favourite novels of 2020, and we are in parallel fictional territory here. Lionel, the protagonist in four of the 11 stories, is similar to Wallace insomuch as both are gay African Americans at a Midwestern university who become involved with a (straight?) white guy. The main difference is that Lionel has just been released from hospital after a suicide attempt. A mathematician (rather than a biochemist like Wallace), he finds numbers soothingly precise in comparison to the muddle of his thoughts and emotions.

In the opening story, “Potluck,” he meets Charles, a dancer who’s dating Sophie, and the three of them shuffle into a kind of awkward love triangle where, as in Real Life, sex and violence are uncomfortably intertwined. It’s a recurring question in the stories, even those focused around other characters: how does tenderness relate to desire? In the throes of lust, is there room for a gentler love? The troubled teens of the title story are “always in the thick of violence. It moves through them like the Holy Ghost might.” Milton, soon to be sent to boot camp, thinks he’d like to “pry open the world, bone it, remove the ugly hardness of it all.”

Elsewhere, young adults face a cancer diagnosis (“Mass” and “What Made Them Made You”); a babysitter is alarmed by her charge’s feral tendencies (“Little Beast”); and same-sex couples renegotiate their relationships (Simon and Hartjes in “As Though That Were Love” and Sigrid and Marta in “Anne of Cleves,” one of my favourites). While the longer Lionel/Charles/Sophie stories, “Potluck” and “Proctoring,” are probably the best and a few others didn’t make much of an impression, the whole book has an icy angst that resonates. Taylor is a confident orchestrator of scenes and conversations, and the slight detachment of the prose only magnifies his characters’ longing for vulnerability (Marta says to Sigrid before they have sex for the first time: “I’m afraid I’ll mess it up. I’m afraid you’ll see me.” To which Sigrid replies, “I see you. You’re wonderful.”). (New purchase, Forum Books)


A bonus story: “Oh, Youth” was published in Kink (2021), an anthology edited by Garth Greenwell and R.O. Kwon. I requested this from NetGalley just so I could read the stories by Carmen Maria Machado and Brandon Taylor. All of Taylor’s work feels of a piece, such that his various characters might be rubbing shoulders at a party – which is appropriate because the centrepiece of Real Life is an excruciating dinner party, Filthy Animals opens at a potluck, and “Oh, Youth” is set at a dinner party.

Grisha is here with Enid and Victor, his latest summer couple. He’s been a boytoy for hire since his architecture professor, Nate, surprised him by inviting him into his open marriage with Brigid. “His life at the time was a series of minor discomforts that accumulated like grit in a socket until rotation was no longer possible.” The liaisons are a way to fund a more luxurious lifestyle and keep himself in cigarettes.

While Real Life brought to mind Virginia Woolf, Taylor’s stories recall E.M. Forster or Thomas Mann. In other words, he’s the real deal: a blazing talent, here to stay.

 

Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams (2017)

After enjoying her debut novel, The Liar’s Dictionary, this time last year, I was pleased to find Williams’s first book in a charity shop last year. Her stories are brief (generally under 10 pages) and 15 of the 17 are first-person narratives, often voiced by a heartbroken character looking for the words to describe their pain or woo back a departed lover. A love of etymology is patent and, as in Ali Smith’s work, the prose is enlivened by the wordplay.

The settings range from an art gallery to a beach where a whale has washed up, and the speakers tend to have peculiar careers like an ortolan chef or a trainer of landmine-detecting rats. My favourite was probably “Synaesthete, Would Like to Meet,” whose narrator is coached through online dating by a doctor.

I found a number of the stories too similar and thin, and it’s a shame that the hedgehog featured on the cover of the U.S. edition has to embody human carelessness in “Spines,” which is otherwise one of the standouts. But the enthusiasm and liveliness of the language were enough to win me over. (Secondhand purchase from the British Red Cross shop, Hay-on-Wye – how fun, then, to find the line “Did you know Timbuktu is twinned with Hay-on-Wye?”)

 

I’ll have one more set of short story reviews coming up before the end of the month, with a few other collections then spilling into October for R.I.P.

20 responses

  1. That’s quite an interesting leap from Moomins to Filthy Animals! Pleased to see that you enjoyed Attrib. I’m keen to read it for the same reason you were.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s true, I could hardly have found two more different story collections!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh I love the Timbuktu line found in a book from Hay, marvellous!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess I should have saved that up for a Book Serendipity post 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I liked Filthy Animals a lot too and like you have been thinking of reading Attrib on the basis of loving The Liar’s Dictionary. I might skip it now though.

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    1. Although the fact that you note the enthusiasm and liveliness of the language means it still tempts a little, as that is what I most loved about her novel.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I liked the writing and tone; it was just that there were a few too many stories, some of which didn’t stand out from the rest.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. D’you known, that’s the only Moomin book I haven’t read and I do have a copy – must dig it out soon!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was a lovely read. I find the Moomin books perfect for autumn and winter because of the slight air of melancholy. I’ve only read four so far.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Although I didn’t love Real Life on first read, it’s stuck with me, so I will read the collection too. I love “Anne of Cleves” as a title, and I know he loves European history so I can’t wait to see if/how history ties into that one!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s fun how he uses history as a point of reference there: on their first date, Sigrid is trying to figure out which of Henry VIII’s wives various people are most like.

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  6. Another fascinating range of titles. The Jansson title is one I’ve yet to pick up, but I’m reading the Williams novel in between other books at the moment, and though it’s enjoyable so far I’m yet to be enthralled. Soon, I hope! 🙂 Incidentally, I was in Hay this week too and picked up some kids books in one shop and a couple of others in Addyman’s (including the H G Wells title I’ve just reviewed) .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, I envy you the chance to be in Hay!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Uh oh, is this a bad ending for the little hedgehog?

    Every time I’ve seen someone rave about Attrib. I’ve rushed off to the library catalogue and….found nothing. THIS time, it’s there! And, a copy at my home branch, no less. Wheeee. Well, unless that hedgehog question goes badly.

    All of these sound great to me though. Listening to Brandon Taylor on the NYT podcast about Sally Rooney recently was a real joy; he made me want to read everything he’s written (even though I’m not a massive Rooney fan, even though I have heard him speak about his own work too, and just been ‘interested’ not rabidly so).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was trying to be elliptical, but since you ask directly, that would be a yes. You can see why some people avoid animal stories when the creatures are only introduced to be in peril. I wouldn’t say I’m raving about Attrib., but I daresay you’ll enjoy it. And Taylor’s work seems just right for you.

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      1. Thank you for the disclosure. And the encouragement. Both duly noted. And I didn’t take your response to be a rave (I think Joe at Rough Ghosts and maybe also Susan at A Life in Books were ravers?) but nothing you said put me off either. In combination with the other reading in my stacks these days, I can’t be vague about the fates of hedgehogs…one must draw a line. *smirks*

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  8. […] I have a third set of terrific and varied short story collections. Between this, my Part I and Part II posts, and a bonus review I have coming up on Friday, I’ve gotten through 12 volumes of stories […]

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  9. Okay, I’m going to have to firmly add BT to my list of authors to read. I’ve added Real Life to my favourites list at the library, which is a step above adding it to my Goodreads list! This seems like a small thing, but I like that his characters are scientists and mathematicians. I feel like most characters tend to be writers and artists. (Which I also like, but it’s also nice to have change.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s true, you don’t get scientist characters as often. That detail is autobiographical for him, though it seems he left his biochemistry program to write fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. And we’re all glad he did!

        Liked by 1 person

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