Galley Beggar Short Story Prize

Did you hear the thrilling news? Galley Beggar Press, those champions of short form, have opened a short story prize!

ShortstorycoversmallNow, I wouldn’t put any money at all on predicting the tastes of the judges – Sam Jordison, Eloise Millar, Paul Ewen and Benjamin Myers – but I would bet they like to be surprised and are about as open-minded a bunch of readers as you’ll ever get.

Still, for those unfamiliar with the Galley Beggar thang, here’s a round-up of the stuff of theirs that I’ve read AND LOVED over the last eighteen months (such young love!). It’s impossible to try and classify it, so I won’t bother, but I will draw your attention to this: Galley Beggar aren’t afraid of what it means to be human – and in fact have repeatedly embraced stories about the chaotic, seedy and sometimes implausible ways that we get on with the messy business of living and loving. Theirs is a taste fucking vital and glorious.

You’ve just over 11 weeks to get your stories in, and here’s the link to all the info: http://galleybeggar.co.uk/2015-short-story-prize

I for one can’t wait for that long-list anthology. Yee-ha!

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A summer batch

Books I’ve read whilst the sun has (largely) been shining…

PLAYTHINGS – ALEX PHEBY: A mesmerising and compelling story about Paul Schreber, and aspects of his madness hitherto overlooked. Pheby has crafted the story so finely that the suffered unreality of Schreber can be observed at enough of a distance that the fantasy doesn’t overwhelm the senses. The environment is painted vividly – both the present and the remembered childhood – leading my mind to work overtime trying to line up cause and effect. Unsettling in the extreme and yet utterly captivating. I think my second read will be even more intoxicating!

OUR SOULS AT NIGHT – KENT HARUF: Simply lovely. A story of finding love in advancing years – platonic, romantic and neighbourly. A story about taking chances, and speaking your mind. A story about acceptance and tenderness. Read it, then read how the book came into being. It’ll warm the cockles.

LETTERS HOME – ADICHIE, MILLER, SHAMSIE & TSIOLKAS: Four epistolary shorts, later turned into plays. I didn’t understand the final set of letters, between Eve and her Son, except as an exercise in cruelty. Adichie’s correspondents come to life economically, with a suppressed longing and a reverberating affection. Miller’s investigative missives express friendship, loyalty and a sense of ‘what you ought to know’. Shamsie’s soldier-writers remember shared experiences and hope to bridge the gap of time and space between them, whilst a gap of understanding widens. A smart and affecting collection.

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE – ANTHONY DOERR: On the Prez’s summer reading list, no less. It’s a book that’s surprisingly spry for its size, despite the weight of its luminous prose. It is perhaps slightly too beautiful, slightly too neat at the end, but it’s still admirable: the marvel that is radio – invisible waves sharing sounds and thoughts; the blindness of Marie-Laure illuminating the blindness of many other characters; the sumptuous care and dedication between father and daughter. Maybe the problem with all the light, though, is that it seems to float away, as if into the sky.

HUNTS IN DREAMS – TOM DRURY: Concentrating on Charles (Tiny) Darling – the least captivating character from The End of Vandalism for me – Hunts in Dreams spans a single weekend and orbits the Darling family. There’s a wonderful balance between individual preoccupations and the strange bonds that tie families together, and the relationships are painted evenly with both love and strife being textured and nuanced. Drury employs his signature humour in the chapter about goat husbandry to sublime effect.

DIVISION STREET – HELEN MORT: This book of poetry will henceforth go wherever I go. It’s my time – 1980s/90s, my place – Sheffield, South Yorkshire, and captures a sensitivity and bravery that I aspire to. There’s a subtlety and an earnestness that coats everything, and Mort’s blend of awareness and sense of openness means she’s a lass you’d want to furnish with a pint in a cosy Peak District pub.

LEARNING TO TALK – HILARY MANTEL: A terrific companion piece to Giving Up the Ghost, Mantel takes us back to childhood and adolescence, to northern towns and open doors. The texture of it is what I love – texture that’s slightly abrasive, or smooth in the way a scab stretches over broken skin. Like Division Street, it speaks to me of things familiar…

THE LOOKING-GLASS SISTERS – GOHRING GABRIELSEN: Possibly my favourite Peirene yet. Two sisters – warlike, worn-down – share the same house. From the perspective of the sickly and cared-for sister we witness a life of toil and external pressures that the narrator skews into formidable plots. Revealing the epitome of desperate isolation – being dependent, being ‘head’-ridden – the story nonetheless revels in spirit, verve and not a little spite. Potent!

AMERICANAH – CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE: Pitching this as a love story, when the interaction between the two lovers amounts to less than 20% of the book is a bit of a stretch, but maybe I should take that up with the blurb writer. Adichie prose is elegant, and her characters are terrifically opinionated. I’d have liked more material from the blog that the main character writes about coming to realise she is black.

Randall, meet What I Loved

Some time ago, I was blown away by Siri Hustvedt’s astounding achievement, in What I Loved, of creating, and containing, an artistic practice in a novel. I wrote:

Hustvedt brings to life numerous bodies of work that are conceived and created, that are critiqued and dissected, that are received and reviewed, that fester and mutate… and it strikes me that this as authentic and ‘real’ as art gets. There is so much work that can’t be touched or viewed ‘in the flesh’, that operates on a premise of concept: the legend of a piece is bound by language and permeates cultural society through media that often belie the fact that the work existed to the point that it is inconsequential whether it did.

I thought the feat was utterly unique. Until now.

Jonathan Gibbs’ Randall is an ‘alternative’ view of the phenomenon of the Young British Artists (YBAs) that we all know, and love or hate to varying degrees, from the nineteen-nineties. It’s alternative because, though it draws primarily on fact, Damien Hirst is notably absent (accidental death) and his void is filled by Randall, the figure around whom the novel revolves. Gibbs brings this startling, rambunctious, and borderline offensive character to life with a deft drawing that teeters between narcissism and pseudoism – a drawing conducted through unlikely friend, Vincent Cartwright.

The artistic practice that Gibbs invents is gloriously wicked and clever – ranging from the scatological to the destructive – and it embodies countless art school debates that I’ve either overheard or (to my minor embarrassment) been a part of. These arguments get boiled down, repeatedly, into ‘Randallisms’: Contemporary art: art you don’t have to see to get; art you don’t have to like to buy. Gibbs plays with the reader with these pithy statements that seem contemptuous in tone – it’s impossible to know if celebration or denigration is the point. This Schrodinger’s box, this keeping the lid on the simultaneous possibilities of futility and vitality, is mirrored superbly in a scene later on in the book, when Vincent recalls one of Randall’s arguments about daily encounters with artwork – at your workplace, at home – the work is physically in stasis, but its effectiveness, its meaning, alters with the gaze, with the myriad emotions and preoccupations of the viewer that colour the encounter. The work holds all those possibilities – it is objective – and the viewer opens the box in the moment of looking.

So far, so brilliant. What makes this an extraordinary novel though, and something else it has in common with What I Loved, is that it is essentially about friendship. About how a shared passion, a point of contention, can be fertile soil for friendship. Vincent writes of Randall:

He shaped me. There, if you were looking for one, is my definition of friendship. If knowing someone doesn’t change you as a person, then they’re not a friend, they’re an acquaintance.

The book interweaves Vincent’s attempts to record the man and the work, with action in the present – a discovery, by Randall’s widow, and Vincent’s former lover, Justine. This layer of the story is totally compelling, and provides a counterpoint to Vincent’s recollections that is full of tenderness, muted agony and frustration. If Randall, in life, is unpredictable, then in death he becomes a seemingly immoveable obstacle to gleaning understanding. This foray that Vincent and Justine take into the hinterland is precariously poised – a maelstrom of doubt, of fear and of contradictory desires – and it is no surprise that Randall’s progeny (both his vindictive paintings, and his wilful son) bring a host of possibilities crashing to earth in one inevitable trajectory.

What I loved (sorry, couldn’t help it) about Randall, though, is the sense of vulnerability that resonates between the lines, between the characters, between the ‘doing’ and the ‘doer’ of art. Vincent is an art novice (at times, I think this is the absolute best kind of audience) and Randall takes him under his wing, educates him. Vincent is aware of this inequity, aware of his role as ‘douchebag’, that he’s been bestowed this friendship precisely because he will ask what it all means. We have momentary glimpses that Vincent realises the potency of being a blank canvas for Randall, allowing him to impart his intentions in their purest form. In the main, Vincent consciously plays the part of dupe, valuing his role as insider, but he is at a loss when this is challenged by the discovery that Justine makes. She asks:

Are you angry with Randall because of his paintings, so you don’t want to be his friend any more, or are you angry at yourself because you were tricked?

Echoing Lily Briscoe’s thoughts as she’s painting in the third section of To the Lighthouse, we see Vincent struggling to accept that even after their death, our friends, and friendships, are still mutable.

What I Loved, by contrast, concentrates on the friendship between two respective ‘experts’ and their families. Over the course of the book, the painter’s career comes to eclipse the achievements of his friend the art historian, but this is less critical than the way in which their friendship develops through a mutual wrangle with art. But, being so heavily invested in ‘the scene’, these characters are less able to convey its precariousness – are further from the dalliance with invective than we get from Randall and Vincent.

The experience of reading these two books, despite their similarities, was wildly different, even if they engaged similar memory muscles of artistic debate. What I Loved stimulated an intellectual, discursive and reflexive side of me. But Randall burrowed into the core of me, bypassing taste, rejecting solitude, and directing my gaze not at the monstrous jokes we can have at our own expense, but at the compulsion to push at the boundaries, to find meaning where there seems only a vacuum.