Rooms For Improvement
By Sophie Erskine.
8 Rooms: The Short Story Reinvented, Various (C. J. Carver, Rebecca Strong, D. E. Rhylis, Mark Kotting, E. C. Seaman, Guy Mankowski, A. J. Kirby, Miranda Winram), Legend Press, 2009
I’ll keep it short and sweet. Legend Press have put out their fourth short story collection, aiming to reinvent the short story and – as always – to give voice to “a new generation in publishing.” The challenge to the authors – a wide variety of mostly new or unknown names – is to compose a story that takes place in one ‘room’ (however you construe ‘room’) without any restriction on the time frame. The results are varied in style, tone and quality. However, as the blurb suggests, they are all at least original, and they all paint a recognisable “portrait of everyday life” – even when that portrait is occasionally recognisable just because it is slow-paced, tedious and unsurprising.
The idea is an interesting one, I must say, and it raises all sorts of questions about the way we interact with our environment and identify with it. What psychological mechanisms are at play when we feel protective over a section of space we call our own? How are our feelings about a room being ‘home’ different from our feelings about people being ‘home’? In general, how is our interaction with people different from our interaction with spaces? Guy Mankowski, in particular, explores such questions in his tale of a young man welcoming a new lodger into his room. The man calls that place “an extension of his body”, saying “it only makes sense to me… that the room I embody as an adult is like a limb to me.” Indeed, thoughts like this are not foreign to most of us.
Moreover, it’s particularly curious to imagine what experience we all had in one specific room – if a room it can be called – but which none of us can remember: our ‘experience’ in the womb. Rebecca Strong undertakes this imaginative flight of fancy in her story of a baby coming to terms with the domestic situation awaiting her. According to the Legend Press blog, Strong’s aim is to explore “just how much parental responsibility begins at the moment of conception, rather than birth,” a question pertinent to the 21 teenage girls who fall pregnant every day in Britain (making Britain the teen pregnancy capital of Western Europe). We might wonder, though, just how realistic it is to attribute thoughts, feelings, complex sensory perception and even – as happens in this case – philosophical speculation to an unborn foetus. I’ll leave that up to you.
The best in the collection is probably C. J. Carver’s monologue of a fifty-something Chinese Falun Gong practitioner being driven to his death in a truck. China executes more people every year than the rest of the world combined, and it’s refreshing and moving to read about the atrocities which take place in what are effectively Chinese concentration camps. Carver isn’t a newcomer to the literary world: her first novel, Blood Junction (2002), won the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award, and she has received worldwide critical acclaim. In fact, her work appears to regularly bring to the fore issues of global concern – her latest book, Gone Without Trace, is a thriller about human trafficking – and I think she’s one to (continue to) watch in the future.
Given that Legend Press is small and the premise of this collection a promising one, I won’t dwell too much on the book’s less impressive aspects. I will devote one more sentence, though, to the book’s atrocious editing, frequent lack of narrative depth and hackneyed literary devices (like the “it was all a dream” ending at the end of Mark Kotting’s tale of a wedding photographer facing a dilemma). This is one to skim, not read from cover to cover; but in a world where people seem to increasingly seek quick, snappy bouts of entertainment to enrich their busy lives, it may just hit the spot. As A. J. Kirby’s picture of domestic life in this collection demonstrates, you don’t have to write about something long-winded, special or unusual to write engagingly and amusingly. All things considered, it is a beginning, a middle and an end that make a story – even if not a life-changing one.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sophie Erskine is part-time research assistant to the novelist Karen Essex. She is the media manager for the poetry group Perdika Press and is in the first stages of writing a film with the neuropsychologist Paul Broks and the theatre director Mick Gordon.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 12th, 2009.