Ceci n’est pas un roman
By Colin Herd.
The Littlest Feeling, Michael Peverett, Disengagement Books 2011
It sometimes feels like the ‘stories’ in Michael Peverett’s The Littlest Feeling have something of an identity crisis. While most of them are one way or another invested in the act of narration, and while they are usually furnished with fictional conventions such as a sense of character, narrative voice, dialogue, an appeal to the reader’s imagination et cetera, they also display many characteristics more in-tune with the conventions of prose-poetry: lack of consistent perspective, their tendency to circulate around linguistic quirks and kinks, and in particular their unfinished, inconclusive quality. A couple of the stories even make use of line-breaks, and to add to the identity crisis there’s a piece called ‘3 Short Novels’, a suite of distinct paragraphs with their own internal logic that seems to owe something to the experimental micro-form novels in three lines of Félix Fénéon. Caught in between the two genres, like shadows and gaps between the fence-planks on the book’s beautiful photographic cover, Peverett’s stories stretch and tug at both definitions, continually challenging assumptions about what makes a story a story or a poem a poem. Which is all very well, and interesting, but it’s the sheer wit and liveliness of these pieces that really distinguishes The Littlest Feeling.
There are sixty stories in all and they span a considerable range of circumstances and scenarios, many of them turning on what might be considered inconsequential, everyday incidents. The ‘little feelings’ of the title, subdued emotions and conversations. Peverett retains and writes down the deliciously absurd ephemera of thought that many other writers would either neglect, or forget:
“While I was waking up I was thinking about this idea I’ve got for something called ‘Jamembert’.”
“What is that, a kind of spread?”
“I haven’t decided yet. It’s just a name at the moment.”
Just a throwaway crumb of dinner-party chat, I guess, but charming and linguistically adroit. In context, it’s somehow suggestive of a restless valorisation of invention, an empty desire for newness, an impasse. As if on cue, the jocularity of their exchange soon gets old, and narrative attention turns first to a T.V. quiz show and then to the ‘curious look’ (unexplained but possibly jealous) of a character called Becky at Matty (who clocks the look) and a character known only as Chris’ girlfriend. By leaving the significance of the scene entangled, Peverett creates an uneasy, and entirely congruous sense of irritation and frustration at having, like the characters themselves, less than half the picture.
Dreams recalled at the cusp of waking up are, of course, perfect fodder this kind of distracted, half-formed, semi-conscious thought. But Peverett knowingly and suavely swerves the hint of a clichéd dream-narrative at the beginning of his story ‘Washroom’:
There were three of them, so he tried the middle one for fun and it came out blood. He went on rubbing his hands under it mechanically, trying to wash itself off as it dried hard and shiny.
I thought it might be soap! he protested.
He woke up and Freuded it as he drifted in bed. Just a silly pun, following on from the conversation about whether fish were hot or cold-blooded.
‘Washroom’ may begin comically- I love that verb coinage ‘Freuded’- but it ends with tragedy, a confused news report of a rail disaster in Turkey, in which the fatality-toll estimate read justs wildly from 139 to 36. And then in the last paragraph, there’s an obscured suggestion of more local tragedy, a car accident. Peverett doesn’t join the dots of these three incidents, leaving an appropriate sense of shock and bewilderment, allowing the story to fizzle out uncertainly.
In fact, most of Peverett’s stories end abruptly, instilling uncertainty right up until the last sentence, without any sort of conventional wrap-up or conclusion. Instead of asking the reader to puzzle out a complicated plot, it’s as if Peverett is asking the reader to get a sense or ‘f’eling’ of the emotional and psychological dynamics at work behind the piecemeal, fragmentary narration. The word ‘feeling’ seems to play on its secondary definition of a process of finding your way, arms stretched out. We follow Peverett’s diversions, rather like one of his characters in the story ‘Two Squalid Old Men’, a short satire in which two academics are walking upstairs discussing the definition of the word ‘helioblau’ (sky-blue), when one squalid old man tangentially diverts the conversation and the other reacts irritably, ironically committing the foul he’s descrying:
“That was discourteous of you, to – my God I’m not up to the stairs today, I’m sure they’ve put in an extra floor – to impose your meditation on me though it has nothing to do with whatever we’re talking about, therefore – making me have to concentrate only to find out what a vacuous flop it was. Your notion of philosophizing is to let go and flounder.”
Quite a decent notion it is, too. Letting go and philosophically floundering is all part of the fun of the sixty stories that make The Littlest Feeling an unusual, satisfying and daring debut collection.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Colin Herd lives and writes in Edinburgh. He is co-editor of Anything Anymore Anywhere. Poems have recently appeared in Shampoo, Streetcake, Velvet Mafia, Gutter and Pop Serial, and reviews in the blog of Chroma journal. His chapbook, Like, is published by Knives Forks and Spoons Press.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, February 11th, 2011.