edited by Ashley Stokes & Robin Jones
Short stories are the way we live. The world is atomized, desperate, dangerous and confusing at the minute, full of pain, passion, rage, yearning, injustice and too little joy. But not everyone experiences or expresses this in the same way. There is no homogenous form, only moments to collect and arrange. And that’s what Unthology intend to do.
— from the introduction
Unthology 9 is out already and 10 will be with us in June I think. The Stokes & Jones duo at Unthank have been swimming in an ocean of submissions, filtering through them like a pair of blue whales since December 2010, creating 9 anthologies over the course of 7 years = an average of 1.29 books a year.
I initially thought the “Unthank” in the publisher name is a clever Joycean neologism expressing the thankless nature of the labour, with a nod to Sartre’s Nothingness and a sideways glance at Beckett’s Unnamable. But no. It’s the name of the road in Norwich the editor walks down on his way into town.
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As the introduction suggests, the Unthology series is excellent at publishing those short stories that do what only short stories can do. There’s an air of exhilaration and daring to these anthologies. The editors have broad-ranging tastes – the intro talks about how they also wanted to finish each book with a ‘naughty step’, an outrageous story that wouldn’t fit comfortably anywhere.
Unthology 7, as I mentioned previously, was the best anthology I had read in a long long time, beating lots of “Best of” anthologies. Number 8 is still growing on me.
It’s a pleasing balance of stories which might be described as realistic in ambition, and those which are not. The latter includes those which play with an idea and even one or two which could be accused of ‘showing off’. But if the story is fun, what’s wrong with that? Is authentic soul-enhancing fiction the only way for fiction to be serious?
Kit Caless’ Not Drowning but Saving is a clever satire on the motivations of humanitarian volunteers. There are not enough disasters happening to give meaning to the lives of all the thousands craving to be needed. They gaze at their TV screens waiting for a newsflash announcing an earthquake or tsunami.
Those suffering from withdrawal join together in a support group …. there are some dark insights into here.
Damon King’s piece is a concise look at that perennial source of argument: to cut the sandwiches in rectangles or triangles. The setting for this deadpan re-enactment is a prison, which gives a hint as to what way the argument might end.
Andre van Loon’s story takes a nicely distance perspective of the two main characters – a young man and woman, who don’t seem to be bothered by any material concerns, encounter a hiccup in their relationship. The reader is left free to regard them as a bit vacuous.
Recent months have been fraught with an atmosphere of anxiety about gender differences. One manifestation of this was a number of Twitter spats about whether men can write from a woman’s perspective and vice-versa. “If women wrote men the way men wrote women” etc. Lots of heat and little light. For better or for worse this was at the back of my mind, and the portrayal of the main male character in Lara Williams struck me as astonishingly perceptive. I keep going back to this story: there’s something enigmatic about it. It’s a fairly simple story about an ordinary (read ‘middle class’) guy who falls in love with a posh sexy girl. The writing is luminous. To give a maybe awkward example: the groom is told his wife is in the bathroom and wants to see him urgently. He goes to the bathroom door.
‘Knock, knock,’ he ventured, tapping at the door
Why doesn’t he just knock? Or call out her name? There’s something annoying about the way he says the words ‘knock knock’. Maybe the reader will begin to understand why his girlfriend says, apparently without reason, Don’t be so fucking pathetic, at different points in the story.
It’s a weird story. I think it’s a brilliant one, but I can’t fathom the author’s aims in writing it.
David Frankel’s story is a fictionalized bio of the artist Edvard Munch. Related in snapshots over the decades, it blurs the lines between biography and fiction. It feels complete and satisfying in itself, though it is an unusual genre: biography in a short story. Here’s to more in the form.
Clare Fisher‘s story is one of my favourites. It’s a day-in-the-life of a young woman who works in Tasty’s Chicken related with an exuberant immediacy and arbitrariness. She can’t help thinking back to moments in her life when she failed to show courage, but also a time as a teenager when she was nicknamed ‘The Guts’ for her legendary fearlessness. And so the title How to Get Back Your Guts.
The hectic pace gives this piece a upbeat feel, and yet it is an authentic depiction of a life stuck in a low-paid job. There’s loneliness, grime, and exploitation – but Tess has faith that getting back her guts will save her.
Lots of good stuff, Victoria Briggs‘ story also impressed me, and I loved Laura Darling‘s 10,000 Tiny Pieces.
Martin Monahan’s The Toasted Cheese Sandwich of Babel reads like a 20th century novel of ideas from Central Europe. The actions spans continents and decades, professors engaged in secret research, the CIA, connections with world leaders, CERN laboratory, crimes of passion. It’s a lot to have in a short story. Sounds like Monahan needs to get a novel going, and I’d be keen to read it.