Salon Bar Wisdom
By Max Dunbar.
Protest!, Steve Finbow, Melissa Mann, Joseph Ridgwell, Beat the Dust 2009
In general, writers don’t lack self-esteem, and they have a greater tendency towards group, clique and cabal than the solitary nature of the profession would suggest. Influential artists of the twentieth century were known by association; we had the Bloomsbury set and the modernists on the Left Bank, the New York School and Beat poets and writers and, later, a 1980s version of the claque, with American authors Donna Tartt, Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis becoming inseparable to the critical eye: Amis, McEwan and Barnes provided a UK equivalent. We’re not always sure how often these people actually saw each other, but the salon archetype endures.
Literary inner circles are associated with success and hedonism and occasionally someone will try to revive the salon tradition. The New Puritans came along in 2000 with a noisily publicised anthology of short stories featuring Toby Litt, Geoff Dyer and other fiery mediocrities of the 1990s London litscene. Like the Futurists, they had a manifesto. ‘We believe in textual simplicity and vow to avoid all devices of voice: rhetoric, authorial asides'; ‘In the name of clarity, we recognise the importance of temporal linearity and eschew flashbacks, dual temporal narratives and foreshadowing'; ‘We believe in grammatical purity and avoid any elaborate punctuation.’ Onward, comrades, towards grammatical purity! As the author Jeff Noon remarked: ‘The New Puritans have nailed their colours to the mast, and what a drab, lifeless banner it is.’
And so – finally! – we come to Protest!, a fiction anthology from the new independent Beat the Dust Press. It’s a trilogy of long short stories from authors Steve Finbow, Melissa Mann and Joseph Ridgewell. The book begins with a manifesto, and like most manifestos it’s absolutely toe curling. ‘Our writing is aimed at the bored and the ADHD generation.’ ‘We write from a working-class perspective, from our roots and from our boots.’ ‘We are here to throw verb bombs, noun missiles, sentences that shoot from the hip, paragraphs that detonate like cluster bombs, splattering the page and your minds with words as red as blood.’ All the time that I was reading this, I kept hearing the words of a very good author who is also a close friend: ‘Put it in the writing!’
But stay: because once you get past the mission statement, the actual fiction is very good indeed. First off is Steve Finbow’s ‘Asylum Beach: Travels in the Heteroptia’. It’s a crazy mashup of a story, flipping between modern Thailand and some alien civilisation. The scenes bleed into each other in seamless juxtaposition. At times, you feel like this is a portrayal of a disturbed fantasy life; at other points it really does seem like you’re getting a glimpse of a new and unknowable world. Finbow thanks Ballard, Dick and Gibson at the end of the story, and his twenty-first century cut and paste vision is better than that of any other contemporary writer who has tried it.
Next up is a kind of return to realism with Melissa Mann’s ‘The Beautiful Fight'; set in Shipley in West Yorkshire, it’s about the partnership between a self-loathing cleaner and an egotistic anarcho-feminist. The story is well crafted, and poses questions about contemporary critiques of body image that we’re not yet prepared to answer. Protest! is finished off with Joseph Ridgwell’s ‘The Battle of Barncleuth Square’. This is an ensemble piece about the hand-to-mouth underworld of Australia at the turn of the century; European drifters mixing with dispossessed Aborigines and local wasters. This is really well done with a gallery of eccentrics and a real sense of place.
That last quality binds the three stories together: a sense of place, and a sense of time. ‘We are not insular and isolated,’ the manifesto says. ‘Our reach is global, our subjects are manifold.’ It’s what makes the anthology different and special. The authors of Protest! love to engage with the world: a task that the majority of mainstream novelists will not – or cannot – take on.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, December 26th, 2009.