WE ALL HEAR STORIES IN THE DARK by Robert Shearman
Part Five of my review as continued from HERE.
When I read each story, my thoughts will be shown in the comment stream below….
When I read each story, my thoughts will be shown in the comment stream below….
40 responses to “*”
SLOW HANDCLAP FOR THE MORONIC HORDE
“, or the little moues I liked to make towards the nouveau avant garde.”
Well, well, well, this work is quite a phenomenon! Starting off as a seven year old boy, the narrator is taken to the theatre (the lifeblood of this story and much else) by his Sunday Times drama critic of a father, and that relationship, arrives, towards the end of this work, at its ‘Shelter From The Storm’ or ‘abracadabra’ melding moment, a mutual mouth to mouth subsumption, a catharsis for this book’s themes, a Z moment, too. Not Z for Zero or Zerrillo, but the Z as a word I did not deign to write out in full when very recently discussing HERE Paul Tremblay’s new novel ‘Survivor Song’ in connection not with dead classic playwrights (as here) but with a dead classic novelist (George Eliot). This Slow Handclap work indeed starts seriously echoing today’s “plague” in our times (called explicitly by that word here as well as by the expression Z Apocalypse) and our theatres, inter alia, as substantive lifeblood now closed down, thus sucking out, as it really is today sucking out all the creativity juices, leaving the gestalt audience just trying to clap with whatever bodily appendages the plague has left them with! The narrator becomes the Zs’ playwright laureate, meeting dead playwrights of note from Shakespeare (here a monstrous spider with his heart become a bird in a cage, if I recall correctly) to other famous theatrical and literary figures, even my favourite Harold Pinter and, of all people, Andrew Lloyd Webber. Andrew, do please read this Shearman work; I’d like to know what you think of this work you are privileged to appear in. Many darkly hilarious scenes. Till we reach the pay-off, the pride and hope of the Child is Father of the Man syndrome mortified or monumentalised. I’ll let you decide. The last minute curtain call coda with baked beans, notwithstanding. We are all to be in that undead or deader than dead audience soon.
…and now straight on to a dynastic grandfather who ostensibly triggers another “plague”…
THE SMELL OF BURNT ORANGE
“He read Proust.”
Appropriately, this story is numbered 79 in the book. However, unless I have miscounted, it is number 80 in my alphabetical order of reading, just missing the accolade of meaningful coincidence just as the earlier misbegotten Pumpkin Kid did. A story, for me, of meaningful toothache, in places, where reaction against it could place you at death’s door. Especially at my non-prime number age of 72, this Midsommar. A story that keeps on resonating with the rest of this book and with meaningful smells during this Age of Co-Vivid dreams derived from a plague whereby, ironically, one often loses one’s sense of smell (as well as taste)! Suicide or death by exterior agency, even at a prime number age, seems here today connected with those teeth, or to be more precise, the jaws with teeth that expanded so wide in that earlier Shelter from the Storm … and, of course, with this book’s dynastic Child is Father of the Man syndrome. Hmmm, this story has its own taste as well as smell, thank goodness. Belt and braces. An alarm system that works. The taste being a Petite Madeleine dunked in tea and the smell being its title.
Sorry, I have now edited above to correct my typos about prime and non-prime numbers!
SOMETHING IN THE SOIL
“And she got to go on Blue Peter, and she got a Blue Peter badge.”
The tale of an 8 year old girl who sussed out her Mummy and Daddy never talked to each other, and this instinct (borne by love and anxiety) perhaps helped her trigger another plague, like the grandfather did in the previous story, a plague of Missing Links, and I relish such links when they turn up in my reviews! These, though, are mutant, somehow smiling, ancestors from baby dot, now dug up, in hordes, by her school friends, skeletal links with gills and udders and other monogamy ark aberrations. A tale, ending with a girl’s largest smile possible, as, with her mother, her Daddy gone, she cultivated her garden as Voltaire recommended. The Swiftian moral: Evolution as a sequencing of miracles rather than an audit trail of slow insidious cause-and-effect developments — perhaps all we can hope for now?
SOME UNUSUAL FACTS ABOUT LAUREL AND HARDY
A narrator who claims he is not a Laurel and Hardy ‘fanatic’ but when he is left bereft of his exhaustive collection of their films by a vindictive wife who burns them all he ends up scratching his skin to ribbons! An obsession that started when watching them with his naive loving mother, even faking a cough and fever before such things were in fashion, so as to be off school to continue this watching of L&H alongside her. I dare not tell you much more about this potential classic story, other than his interconnecting relationships with three different women, because if I told you much more it would utterly spoil your enjoyment of this work. So I will airbrush most of my other thoughts about it, simply to say that I also love the film where they try to get a boxed piano up some steep steps to a stoop, overrunning their own gestalt duality as Sisyphus, and I am reminded of this book’s earlier stoical efforts connected with the characters climbing stairs in The Sixteenth Step and the other recent story about building skyscrapers … and Voltaire’s ‘cultivation of one’s garden’ ethos in the previous story. And there is also the fact that few people are genuine performers while most of us are just an audience with various diminishing appendages to clap with. This work generally makes one think more deeply of the L&H relationship alongside what information we think we know already of their lives towards the final even sadder overlaps and overruns. This Is Their Lives, if that is not ungrammatical!
“Not everyone can create, we’d be overrun with the stuff.”
Cross-referenced with Sister Light, Sister Dark here: https://elizabethbowensite.wordpress.com/the-big-book-of-modern-fantasy-3/#comment-1118
“ Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1)
This story starts with the stalagmites and stalactites of a 13 year old boy’s teeth, a concept miraculously happening to co-resonate with me, bearing in mind that I myself have recently suffered an infectious trauma of the mouth (it is what delayed this review a week or so ago), a trauma that nearly spread to my brain (as a similar trauma does also happen to this boy explicitly at the end of this story!) and if I had not received emergency help then, I would not be writing this review today, and this story also ends with these stalagmites and stalactites of his teeth.
It is an incredibly remarkable tour de force of a boy’s difficult rite of passage from child to adult, it being a combination of a bar mitzvah or a first communion or a Pumpkin Kid ceremony, involving the establishment of a new tongue in the mouth, a tongue excised from a massive hanging tongue, as if he needs to become a prime butcher carving the finest cut of meat from this tongue for fixing into his own mouth and then to use it for speaking with at that very rite of passage ceremony!
This speaking entails the speaking, with such a tongue-on-trial, the speaking of something barely significant enough for the admittedly sympathetic jury to pass his rite of passage and make his parents feel proud. A challenging study in parent-child relations worthy of a Tem book extrapolation and of much of the rest of this Shearman book, both put together, if that combination is even conceivable! This story can in no way be redescribed in this tongue’s tongue of my review; it needs to be experienced in full and at root here in the book itself. No words are otherwise sufficient.
SUFFER LITTLE CHILDREN
“books that were brushing at the ceiling”
The ceiling, the highest number possible, here the ‘times zero’ tables that children learned, and recited, in the times of ‘times tables’, of The Turn of the Screw to the uttermost limit of seven, and of Jane Eyre, a woman, looking younger than she was, an age regression story, of a scandal with the boy for whom she was Governess, a boy acting older than he looked, much older, till he uttered a word as his own name (Azathoth?), a word that is the ceiling limit of all words. Just my guess at an approximation at least of the word he might have uttered. Later she arrives at a new teaching job in a school, a job to absolve such scandal, and she meets another teacher, the new version of a lover, a woman, to replace that boy? The numbers still grow, the words still grow, too, and in the context of this whole book, I find this story VERY disturbing.
I only hope my previous review of this story (a review that I have forgotten) will grant you a glimpse of presumably my more naive reaction to this story when I originally read it OUTSIDE the context of this book, this book that has not yet finished, wherein “Something’s coming”…. The paintings of skeletal creatures on her bedroom wall, notwithstanding.
I have now sought out that review in 2014 here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2014/06/24/fearful-symmetries/#comment-3191
THE SWIMMING POOL PARTY
Life is a disguised parcel, till you unwrap it, I guess. This story, although I knew I had read it before, unwrapped slowly and unexpectedly. A sort of blend of where I started in this book, with a middle-class suburbia, after unwrapping Alice’s plastic sheet. There it was to reveal golfing heroes, and now it is this book’s recurrent resurrection of the Jesus figure, and another story of a marriage unlocked and the parents’ son, bullied at school, now invited, along with his mother, to one of those types of a rite-of-passage ceremony — like the ceremonies as listed yesterday in the previous but one story. This story where baptism, by dint of a suburban swimming pool, is atomic or granular, the opposite of creating a gestalt, and this story is now, for me, inextricably part of this whole book’s abracadabra of meaty melding, and to find out, again, how a particular story struck me outside the book’s context, I shall need to dredge up, from the bottom of some Jungian pool, my previous review. The taste of cigarettes was never silky smooth, I do insist, meanwhile. And Busby Berkeley, wasn’t he a philosopher who doubted his own perceptions? Or someone who inspired the synchronised swimming of my gestalt real-time reviewing?
The two entries of my previous SWIMMING POOL PARTY review are together here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2017/04/28/shadows-and-tall-trees-vol-7/#comment-9670
SYMPATHY FOR THE SHORN
“, if you’ve ever had to sweep up a barber shop you’ll know only too well how bloody solid hair can be—“
…and how each strand can be autonomously prehensile, as prehensile as a living leitmotif amid the connected music of literature. Here, we are beguiled or disarmed by this narrator’s badinage within the clipped patterns of his inferred speech rhythms, a barber — tutored by his own rough shorn uncle who was said to take Wednesdays off — now interviewing an apprentice barber he calls ‘you’. And you learn about those Wednesdays and what a barber is supposed to do as a duty when supposed policemen bring in creatures approximating supposed men with heads of hair that squirm, even squeal, upon your helping to make short cuts in some supposed police interrogation system. The implications — especially within the FULL context of this book, and I may be the only reviewer who is, on his own, about to finish reviewing this whole book in relative detail (so I KNOW or should do soon) — are rampant with possible meaning. I will never look at my own barber again in the same light, which perhaps is an irony because, due to the recent lockdown, I have learnt how to shave my own hair at home! Sympathy, too, for the demon barber, as well as Shearman’s shorn!
…and now to be shorn of her feared yet subconsciously proud powers, as with the once uncut hair of Samson – these being Susan’s prehensile thought strands: a head’s red worms subjected to “a whole, bloody dynasty” of sororal Popping Fields…
TALENT WILL OUT
“Susan had expected they would be the only members of the audience, but it wasn’t as bad as that; there were maybe a dozen other families already around the huge tent…”
Likewise, I am glad the other circus stories in this book have faded a little, spread out somewhat from my ageing mind by the distancing of a few days. This gives more power to the circuses and their audiences suddenly rushing back into my head by means of the reading, out of the blue, of this substantive work. The story of Susan who thinks she has a blight on the facial white make-up syndrome of stoical clowns whom she sees performing in childhood and a little beyond. A blight towards their actual publicly witnessed death in the ring. But three such deaths does not a pattern make? Yet, patterns have powers, however sparse, I find.
All this, until Susan reaches a fourth circus after adopting the daughter of her elder cancer-dead sister. The atmosphere of all these circuses will haunt you, especially the fourth one with its amazingly poignant ‘child-is-father-of-the-man’ clown performance, even if these circuses fade eventually, as they probably will again for me. But they always stay there, in your head, waiting for resurrection. The sororal relationship, the dynasty of powers channelled by the niece, the adoption of whom has so far helped Susan’s own marriage to Ben, bearing in mind that her own parents, in her childhood, faded away from each other, just like those circus memories. As she will no doubt fade from Ben. But whose are these memories, these powers? Are they Susan’s, or her dead sister’s, or her niece’s, or those powers and memories of each reader lurking as a wormy homunculus inside the author’s own head?
A head to be popped from the inside, whether its face has white make-up or not.
Talent will out.
Regarding a lurking Azathothian worminess within a carapace, I saw ‘Dalek’ (2005) for the first time before going to sleep last night!
“Why sell one cure when I can sell a thousand palliatives?”
Also loved the hair drier found among the clunky weapons!
I am genuinely gobsmacked in hindsight at how appropriate it is now for my due sequenced reading of this book to have watched, for the first time last night, this author’s Doctor Who episode in 2005!
Not only does this wonderful Alice-parallel fiction about a terribly fat lady’s attempts to slim down via a DRINK ME process (so as to attend her daughter’s wedding in a presentable state) have further telling parallels with the sororal relationship in the actual previous story above (sisters, here, in a dream with a white rabbit), but also it has the popping open of the Dalek’s carapace (i.e. her head) to help ease out parts of her brain substance to the drainpipe outside, thus editing out her Hardy from her Laurel, or vice versa! To ease out some of her memories and hang-ups, too, as a parallel with what I said about memories in the actual previous review entry above. This TASTE ME also has a text full of paragraphs with “pops” from the Popping Fields. Her husband a right “prick”!
So many illustrative quotes I could make here. Spoilt for choice. So I will make none.
THAT TINY FLUTTER OF THE HEART I USED TO CALL LOVE
“There was the smell of mud, so much mud. Who’d known mud could smell?”
From TASTE ME to SMELL ME…
Can mud itself smell things? Smell us out? Here it is the culmination of an alarm, like that earlier smell of burnt orange, rather than being its initial breaking of the story’s silence before one starts reading it. A somewhat shocking concept of an 8 year old girl’s ‘daughters’ or dolls brought home by her Daddy, dolls participant in an intermittent woodland ceremony, one of this book’s sacred ceremonies, with her somewhat affectionate 18 year old brother who later goes to war and does not return…
Then a separate page-turning suspense of several pages, when older, she meets her future husband at a dance , a rather cold affair, with her having previously been left on the shelf, with careful flensing of skin hair, rather than this book’s earlier cruder shearing of Samson’s powers. The dolls implicated, too, particularly one doll. A new initiation.
The doll should have been left on that shelf, perhaps!
I now issue that trigger alarm of smell a bit belatedly. Possibly too late now to warn you against reading this shocking story at all. All pink pink pink, then brown. As many of us travel to become eventually. Then melded brown to an ashy white make-up. In TASTE ME this morning earlier above, all our colours explicitly turned to grey.
THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS
“In short, he was a man who had treated his life with respect, and life had paid him back with interest.”
Yet Edwyn’s earlier interest in or from creative writing had not accumulated. He had married a wife who would have been rather more impressed with him if she had known that he once had a novel published before she met him. In truth, through his eyes, we learn that this novel had had indifferent reviews, and he had fallen out of love with it. No spice in it, I suspect, although the text itself does not actually tell me this. He also now thinks he was not a good writer. He had almost forgotten all about it. It seems appropriate that I mentioned yesterday, above, about the reader as wormy homunculus literally being inside the author’s head. Edwyn becomes equivalently obsessed, during his routine train commute home, with his own rare reader, with it gradually dawning on him, that the man sitting opposite in the carriage is reading Edwyn’s own very novel! What is going on in the reader’s own head as he reads it? Edwyn follows the reader surreptitiously to a cafe where the reader continues reading it — and if I carry on giving you the detailed audit trail of this story, it would spoil it. It is pure unadulterated Shearman, at his best, I find, and I will mention that the cafe tea, like Proust’s, does end up having a taste to it. And when this book’s earlier strong tongue motif is re-introduced, we do infer that the soluble text indeed has no ‘spice’ to taste at all, but it has plenty of soggy blankness potential. The book also has a “dusk jacket”, an expression that somehow seems appropriate to the cafe ambiance. Although that is probably a typo. The ending, meanwhile, is defiantly and counterintuitively uplifting. A lesson for all writers to help themselves optimise their arduous, often self-parroting, endeavours. The good wife still patiently waiting at home, I hope.
“Having bitten his lordship in the thumb and sung part of a sea-chanty, it fell to the bottom of the cage…”
from “Right Ho, Jeeves” by P.G. Wodehouse
“You’re not cheating on them, you know. You’re only tasting.”
When I first read this story, it blew me away. It still does. But a lot of Shearman stories have blown me away since then, so it sinks back further into the overall Shearman treasure trove, as I once also said about the (William) Trevor’s trove of stories and a particular story I had read before reading most of his canon. And this story has strengthened and strengthened in the context of this massive three-volume literary circle-jerk … with a tongue’s fitting like a glove … and fathers and sons … and horrors and/or absurdisms to help fathom the workings of life … and much more.
I refer you to the link in the sub-comment below for my previous review of this great story. Until I look at it again, I can’t remember what I then said about it. I hope it does not have any spoilers…
…straight on to Tom Thumb? No, but, Tom is here seen at one point “sucking on his thumb.”
TOM IS IN THE ATTIC
“…and you see it it isn’t a toy car at all. It’s a hairbrush.”
Not a weapon, but a hair-drier. This story of three versions of Tom in your attic seems to encapsulate much of this book as well as of your personal traumatic experience while reading it. As seemed to happen with my previous religiously daily lockdown book review (The Dark Nest by Sue Harper). Here, you are Rachel Taylor, sometimes just in your undies. And there is indeed potential spice in this story, despite you once calling it platonic love. Young Tom, Inbetween Tom and Old Tom playing in your attic. Whether ghosts or real, whether memories or autonomous thoughts, you keep your powder dry. And this is about you, and your pillow. Your teeth. Stroking your chin, that, for me, still remains numb but tingly tender. Making trauma ‘melt away’, hopefully, before the “gums fall out”. And the Tooth Fairy’s “treasure trove”. Even about your tongue. And Mummerset is the name of the main character in ‘Weirdtongue.’
Another wonderful story, one that truly “accommodates” me. And, in different ways, accommodates you, too, for all I know.
“You haven’t been outside for a while, the people come and deliver all of the shopping you need,…”
THE TOUCH OF BABY STALIN’S SKIN
“His lack of pets was a good thing.”
A story that has deep bearing on the cyclic politics of the world. The coldness in tyrants, or the coldness in ourselves? That eyeful goo from a popped vessel-lid such as a Dalek’s carapace or, as here, a mighty virus-infecting sneeze birthing a 14 year old girl’s snot monster from inside her head upon a cake — a negative synergy between her and the tyrant who eats it. Knowingly or unknowingly. One of those tyrants, possibly a Stalin puppet, where his totalitarian nation’s container of skin was still thin and new. Upon the story’s surface of our tender skin of history, again today with curfews as lockdowns, we can also read this as a compelling story, a story of that school girl, and her crush for a male teacher, her journey (cf the journey to the restaurant in ‘Blood’) – Unconsoled – through the city’s streets stalking the teacher to where he lived with his old mother. The girl is later chosen, perhaps unsurprisingly, for the honour to present the cake to that nation’s leader … at another ceremony born from within these heavy books. A leader now in colour, like a particular tyrant today, and a misbegotten yet destined handshake sharing that coldness I mentioned above. The tyrant preferred girls of her age, you see. It was the teacher who hated pets, I infer.
“And the cake was heavy, but it wasn’t as heavy as the books,…”
“Take away love and our earth is a tomb.”
“And she’d write a P.S. in all that large space underneath,…”
This is, obliquely, the way I look at it, a tremendously poignant portrait of a so far durable marriage as the couple hang about in the air, circling Heathrow, after a smooth journey, belying the title, except perhaps for the Captain’s various polite, but increasingly mad-seeming, announcements on the plane’s tannoy. A marriage on some brink in more ways than one, with a postcard in the wife’s handbag to a potential lover, a husband who battles against anxiety and the holiday’s week-old paella still in his stomach. Anything to avoid later quarantining conditions? Or reading more gossip magazines? Recouping their long marriage, or simply letting go? The optimum tontine story? Yet, not a tontine at all, as they are all on that plane subject to the eventual repercussions of its fate, whatever their choices. As we are all on our own plane, this planet, subject to those who control its turbulent destiny, whatever choices that we anxiously make about which love bubble to enter or simply to suffer death’s isolation with stoical acceptance.
“On the earth the broken arcs; in the heaven a perfect round.”
…incredibly straight on to:
“So down to Earth went the man, down through the clouds…”
as quoted from…
Well, well, a brief story as fable that broaches something I wrote earlier, I think, in this review about never finishing my gestalt real-time viewing as a means to by-pass death. And there are big volumes of an even bigger book here in this fable that arguably serve this purpose! A man sent back from Heaven’s gate to first finish reading all the books he left unfinished during his lifetime. And it turns out chronologically in backward order. Why did I not think of using that sequencing method! Still the whodunnit ending with a zebra perhaps proved he really used my method! We all indeed hear books in the dark – when inside the author’s head! For ‘hear’, please read ‘read’.
“, and he was helping her stack all the tins of soup in alphabetical order.”
An even briefer story as fable, as two marriages meet head on — the widening gaps of his ageing parents’ marriage and his own younger marriage with their daughter-in-law — the former with a lodger named C F Murfin (cf ‘murfin’).
This fable’s moral? My interpreted moral:- to fill the ‘oppressive void’ of those gaps with a new baby (if you are still young enough) or you might end up with a pesky pet dog instead! Your interpreted moral? Any conscientious Anti-Natalism, notwithstanding, of course.
URN – unfURNished – mURfiN
Incredibly, it soon became obvious to me that this story — of staccato dialogue as the aftermath of an apparent burglary whereby a valued urn of ashes goes missing — is the sequel to the younger couple’s story in the previous story! Their child had become 7 years old before ‘slipping away’ at 1.35 a.m. 19 days ago …. leaving them with gaps again. The outcome would be spoilt if I say any more. Meanwhile, the above pattern of letters of URN in the correct order three times is surely not to be sniffed at. I noticed that meaningful coincidence AFTER I realised these two works were prequel and sequel to each other. Seriously.
A VIEW FROM THE CLIFFTOP
“How dare he trust her? How dare he?”
In Midsommar, an old man and old woman, both of my current exact age, jumped separately from a version of this story’s clifftop. I can’t remember whether they were husband and wife, but, whatever, I feel this story is a further sequel to the couple who lost their child in the previous story and, by dint of a staged burglary (was it a Greek urn?), felt themselves having been forever childless (an ‘absent absence’), but, here, in this VIEW story finally mixing up their endearments of “darlingness” and “gorgeousness”, a provocative portrait of a youngish marriage (11 years) under the story’s surface readability of their recurring Greek holiday scenario, with mention of a ‘Turbulence’ postcard, the necessary rarity of treats, confirming selfies, a hotel receptionist with a hatchet face, and a double bed slightly too small for them. And one of them, by turns, hugging and punching a pillow. Beyond any further recurrence, they are perhaps waiting to get old enough for this book’s — or our darkening era’s — purge.
THE WAR ARTIST
“Creative artists trade in ambiguity, we know that. But surely they can only lurk behind ambiguity for so long, sooner or later they have to come out…”
Earlier it was said in this book that ‘something’s coming’, and the crux of this novelette is surely that something. An interwoven triptych of fiction in different eras — labelling each section (appropriately for me) with alphabetical guidance pointers. Its whole gestalt felt as if it is in mutual synergy with one of my favourite Nemonymous authors, Tim Nickels, who filled my decade of the noughties (and beyond) with salmon leaps of colours, substances and characters: word-teemings disguised as fiction novelettes. He even once wrote a story also called ‘The War Artist’ (2015) that I reviewed HERE!
Shearman’s ‘The War Artist’ (2014) also contains wildly and wordily evocative leaps of fiction. Building on this book’s earlier dealings with father-son relationships, and on today’s statue syndrome in some more distant past era of wars, where the names even of children that were never born are engraved. These ‘never borns’ give birth later to their own future realities of protagonism in this work, and there is a later war artist’s chance painting of nudes in a garden and a young girl who refused to get undressed (the inverse version of Manet’s nude at a picnic?), a painting becoming a famously perceived depiction of corpses in the first world war and not decadence in someone’s garden. And there are later 9/11 type acts of terrorism as our sporadic bouts of otherwise sparsely real wars today, each terrorism with its manifold number/number date denotation. There is no way I can do justice as to how this exquisitely painterly fiction works, and what else its salmon leaps teem with. It definitely needs, I feel, to be read at this late stage of reading the whole Shearman book.
Something indeed came. Via trenches and mediaeval battles and bombs outside museums. Memorials and monuments. And mud mud mud and more mud. And a final culmination of now requited love.
My reviews of Tim Nickels, the writer’s writer: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tim-nickels/
“It’s not a good fizzing, like, I don’t know, champagne on a summer’s evening. It’s a bad fizzing, like a housefly spinning round on its back,…”
A lonely woman, better off lonely, she says, and she is caught up by the the apartment block’s children, and by their concomitant liquid darkness, and by their para-eponymous game whereby every answer you get on the planchette is twice YES, because every ghost has two EYES, I wonder? I sense this is the culmination so far of the last few stories’ eventual childlessness evolving into the ‘war artist’ stonemason’s never-borns … and this woman is summoned to this game, skin to skin, by the son she should have had, a game that also gives her the ghost of her late husband (whose name she has airbrushed till now), thus triangulating the coordinates of chance encounters engendered by the children’s planchette. The loneliness endures, though, as she wished, forever. The actual cold touch of an encounter with a ‘never born’ is optimum salvation enough for some, I guess. A poignant satisfaction that only this book’s sporadic stoicism can bring.
“When I am laid, am laid in earth, may my wrongs create
no trouble, no trouble in thy breast;
remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate.
Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.”
From ‘Dido’s Lament’ by Purcell.
Aye Aye, the yeses, if not the eyes, have it!
The next is a numbered (50) but untitled ‘story’ that I have thus deemed to be entitled, if not numbered, as ‘0’, i.e. the first of three stories, in numerical order, with titles starting with numerals. And it appears to be a hybrid personal statement by the author and a fiction about maps etc. I normally only review stories that appear to be pure fiction. So I am torn, here! It seems to feature Alexander the Great as the namesake of the Alex in The War Artist, since I have only just read the latter story and am still alert enough to make that connection. And there is also fiction, unless it is true, about a young Shearman publishing an eighty year old Tolkienesque writer and his illustrator whose destinies seem to be connected. However, this ‘story’ talks about a total of 101 stories in this book, when I know there are 103 stories if you include this untitled ‘story’, the unnumbered story and taking into account that two stories are numbered sixty-six. Thus, this ‘story’ is apocryphal on a clotted level lower than fiction or overlapping fiction, and is thus ‘times zero’ …. and, what is more, I remain confident that I have used a sequenced reading system that prevented me from vanishing into the confusion of my own maps of this book, maps that would otherwise have been based on the author’s non-fiction of his labour-of love maps as direction finders between each story! Mine, I feel, is a world-beating track and trace system without any indisciplined criss-crossing, one that has managed to avoid the reading of a book like this one from the first page to the last, in strict page number order as I do with ‘normal’ books. Mine is the best of both worlds. Random, but somehow unrandom, too. And I remain apologetic to the author for possibly ‘cheating’ on perhaps what he intended. But I am bolstered by my life-long, perhaps foolhardy, faith in the theory of the Intentional Fallacy, and the pillow that the author provides for resting my reviewer’s laurels upon, i.e. his recognition of a reader like me having bought this book, and it is thus for me to choose whether, when or how I read it. Yet, I continue to keep my powder dry, till I have read the final two stories….
“Some of the seventy-two virgins were useless.”
From the stories-in-circle-jerk of the ‘useless’ quote (taken from the HA of HA) at the outset of this massive review just ahead of the suburbia story that started me off… we duly reach what really is the most disappointing story in the book. To reach, upon death, a Heaven as such a suburbia, and the popping of cherries as a forerunner to more fundamental popping. Plus something about balloons at the end.
And, oh yes, another ‘wall of flesh’, here as a socially undistanced orgy!
Not forgetting what it adds to one’s approach to marriage, after reading this often wisely oblique book.
“, but there were events missing, the bits that linked a to b to c.”
From the most disappointing story in this book to what I can now confidently say is the least disappointing …
“, and it seemed to him like a map, he’d trace the journey from A to B to C to D.”
…moles on her back, that is — whackamole sites? A book treating with more depth the obliquely wise study of a marriage initiated by 72 Virgins (there is a similar reference, I think, to angels as these virgins in 101 Heartbeats). And this substantive work brought me to tears in several places. A tour de force that I deem a discrete potentially best-selling novella, as well as a work vitally intrinsic to this whole book’s gestalt. No mean feat. Let me first tell you where I am coming from… my wife and I recently celebrated, during lockdown, our 50th wedding anniversary, and we have a son and daughter elsewhere. And this work made me reflect on many things in my own life as well as the context of this whole book. It is written in 101 numbered sections, but not in the correct order of 1 to 101. I suspect it is somehow in both a random and an unrandom order (!), and I have read the whole text of the story as it is printed from beginning to end. I did not check whether any numbers were missing, nor whether the explicitly airbrushed  was exactly in the middle, nor whether there were two sections numbered 66. I shall pick out my highlights—
The place of farts in relationships, the time travel implications, celebrating in real-time the middle of a relationship, being called a “pathetic clown”, finding out about a newly discovered planet as my wife’s head (my wife’s head is also very small and mine very big, and we gave birth to children with perfectly sized heads), future ghosts of our love, a patch of numb skin just like my worrying numbness that evolved while reading this book and still exists today, writing Valentine cards ready for future years, the fact I had no idea what this work was going on about regarding a Tv series called ‘Friends’, “I’m not a has-been, I’m a never-was, I’m a never-gonna-be”: perhaps a locked never-born “having vivid dreams”, the Ground Zero of the Eiffel Tower: a potential sort of Midsommar leap here and during the Encounter holiday poised high up with a view of the sky’s fissure to Heaven and the high mountain meeting with God, the apparent dream of a Tem-like death of one’s child, the pet Murfin dog again as one’s husband’s reincarnation, the heart between the thighs, “balloons everywhere”, the loss of one’s wife alongside this book’s still constant Odyssey to reclaim what one has lost, plus the constructive irony attached to both the Odyssey quest’s end and its story-teller (within its fiction-truth) being identical …
“And he knows that at some point he’s going to have to ask her how the washing machine works.”
My review of this book is what it is:
please re-read it.
I will simply confirm my powder is now effectively wet … with tears.
And that this book IS an embarrassment of riches as well as, for me, a literary epiphany.
I shall now read, for the first time, the two brief Epilogues (I don’t think, in hindsight, I should have read the Prologue before finishing my review of the fiction), and the other material by Angela Slatter, Michael Marshall Smith, Steven Moffat and Lisa Tuttle. I am sure this further reading will give me extra food for thought, but I shall not come back here to tell you what I thought about this material. Although I may sporadically have postscripts to this PS book review into the distant future … to be appended below. No promises, because any prospect of a ‘distant future’ seems to diminish by the day! Give or take the odd Encounter with high places.
Just realised that there were 72 virgins, the very number that represents the age when one faces one’s Midsommar leap!
We All Hear Stories In the Dark of the Author’s Head
One other previous Shearman review of mine I have just duscovered, In addition to those here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/robert-shearman/
Damned If You Don’t: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/09/27/never-again/
The five parts of this review –
https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2020/07/02/we-all-hear-stories-in-the-dark-robert-shearman/ A – BRA
https://etepsed.wordpress.com/883-2/ CAN – FAM
https://elizabethbowensite.wordpress.com/robert-shearman/ GIR – MON
https://nemonymousnight.wordpress.com/790-2/ MUM – SIX
https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/24033-2/ SLO – 101