Despite its inestimable cultural value, book publishing is an infamously low margin business, its models of distribution often mediated and lengthy. In an effort to get books quickly into the hands of readers in a sustainable way, small UK house And Other Stories has revived a subscription model for its range of fiction in English and in translation. Similar to the schemes that once underwrote novels like Fanny Burney’s Camilla or Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, And Other Stories subscribers are annually posted up to six selected books.
To date, these subscription editions have included South African novelist Ivan Vladislavic’s beautifully textured Double Negative, and Deborah Levy’s Man Booker Prize-shortlisted Swimming Home. Subscribers trust in the publisher’s curated provision of these books. In return, they receive the titles well before they are distributed by other means, and are thanked in the back of each edition. As a subscribing reviewer, I am in the unusual position of writing a consideration of a book – Angela Readman’s short story collection Don’t Try This At Home – that thanks me by name for making its existence possible.
Readman won the Costa Short Story Award in 2013 for ‘The Keeper of the Jackalopes’. The story, which is included in Don’t Try This At Home, trails Cole, father to Clary, who is left battling land speculators with the most meagre of defences. Cole’s stuttering euphemisms, an attempt to protect his daughter from his natural proclivity to swear, are comic evidence of words intended to hide an absence that rather succeed in exaggerating it. Cole’s hobby of taxidermy further underlines his need for inexact reclamation. While the predictably graceful fall of this story’s narrative can be read as clearly as a line on a chart, it is not by it that this collection stands.
The title story, incidentally a runner-up for the Costa in 2012, hints at a deeper weirdness at the heart of Readman’s work. It begins, ‘I cut my boyfriend in half; it was what we both wanted.’ This premise is not murderous; rather, it is (re)productive in the literal sense, as the narrator’s parry with a garden spade merely produces another version of her boyfriend. This new version represents her partner’s affectionate side, and like imprecise casts from a mould (Readman is very interested in the creeping variances of repetition), more doubles follow. ‘I swiped the spade through him like a credit card.’ A surrealistically witty take on the very idea of purpose, the titular story is a gentle embodiment of Readman’s often-sly wit.
‘Conceptual’ depicts a family so enamoured of art that their simplest domestic acts would not look out of place at a Museum of Contemporary Art. ‘Surviving Sainthood’ deepens the emotional well, playing with perspective and examining the neglect experienced by those left outside the whirlpool of serious illness. ‘This is the moment life can drift into past tense… we saw the doctor, we asked another specialist, you went for another scan. There are moments to really be somewhere, and hours to barely be there.’
The real gem in this collection is undoubtedly ‘There’s A Woman Works Down the Chip Shop’, which takes its inspiration from Kirsty MacColl’s great early 1980s single on infidelity ‘There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis’ (‘But he’s a liar and I’m not sure about you’). Readman’s story flips it to a tender tale, with the image of the famously loose-waisted pop star standing for a new sexual confidence. Wry, precise and joyously seditious, it’s a hip-shaker.
But alas, from there the energy runs low in this already short collection. ‘Dog Years: Life as a Dog-Faced Girl’ never lives beyond its Tom Waitsian title. The prize-winning ‘The Keeper of the Jackalopes’ is so busy sweeping up a range of the domestic uncanny, that in a reverse unheimlich manoeuvre it fails to surprise at all. The tally of near-misses means that Don’t Try This At Home compares unfavourably with a collection like Ryan O’Neill’s The Weight of a Human Heart, which stands as one the best collections of experimental yet gossamer-light fiction, equal to those of George Saunders and Jennifer Egan.
Don’t Try This At Home positively bursts with an inquisitive off-the-wall energy, but too often it feels corralled into an unconvincingly resolved narrative state. Readman is a writer in the early stages of her career; glimmering with a fierce promise that will likely soon float free of those more overly crafted stories in this collection.