Open The Box and other stories
(Elastic Press, www.elasticpress.com,
£5.00, 163 pages, paperback, published 1 February 2003.)
One of the greatest services of fiction is to allow
reader access into realities other than their own; to demonstrate the
workings of other minds, to illustrate psychologies that might otherwise
remain hidden to us in our locked-in view of the world. The best art
and literature does this. At the same time as showing different states,
good fiction should also connect with the reader, giving us glimpses
of the familiar, the particular, in the universal.
The strength of Andrew Humphrey's unclassifiable, and often quite
brilliant, short stories, is that he shows us a world we would often
rather not see, and does so with an unflinchingly honest eye for the
seedier, cynical aspects of individual lives wrecked by misfortune and
apathy and personal inability to affect circumstance.
Open the Box is a collection of thirteen short stories reprinted
from magazines such as The Third Alternative, Crime Wave,
and Roadworks. Eleven stories are mainstream, slice-of-life,
gritty realism (Norwich nihilism, I thought to myself halfway through
the book), while the two remaining stories are steeped with the same
pessimistic, scalpel-sharp view of contemporary society, but filtered
through a vision of the fantastic: "Less and Less" is about a psychologically
disturbed young man convinced that he is vanishing; "Time Bleeds" features
a central character bequeathed portents of the future from casual strangers.
The strength of Humphrey's writing is the searingly honest portrayals--which
ring absolutely true--of individuals tortured by the same self-doubt,
insecurity and angst that touch us all from time to time. While his
vision is bleak (a word that crops up again and again in this book)
and hopeless--and not one all of us would subscribe to--one receives
the impression that it is a vision arrived at not merely as a fashionable
pose, but as a fully-thought out, or felt, response to the world as
perceived by the writer.
The best stories in the collection are "Family Game", "Helen Said",
and "Simply Dead". They are also the longest stories in the volume,
and allow Humphrey the space to fully explore the respective central
characters' tortured psyches, and the reasons for this torment. In "Family
Game" Humphrey portrays a disintegrating marital relationship against
a background of ruptured family history and emotional insecurity. In
"Helen Said" we are allowed into the head, the very psyche, of alcoholic
Mike, his stultifying daily ritual of drink and despair and his doomed
relationship with pathological liar Helen. "Simply Dead" is an appalling
glimpse into an underworld we know exists, despite our desire to turn
a blind eye. On the surface it's a story of crime and revenge, but underneath--as
ever with this author's intelligent writing--an examination of the conditions
that underpin individual failings and suffering. Humphrey writes in
a spare, economical prose style admirably suited to his subject matter,
and he has an enviable knack of capturing the seedy side of life in
graphic detail and few words.
The only story that didn't work for me was "Burning Bridges", which
deals with a serious subject in a throwaway style (it would have been
better if longer and if the motivations of the central character more
rigorously explored). And while I'm quibbling, I might as well record
that the book is printed in a Courier or New Courier font, which makes
the whole thing appear amateurish.
I can't bring myself to say that I actually enjoyed the stories in
Open the Box--they're too searingly honest and despairing for
that--but I appreciated the glimpse of Humphrey's vision of reality,
and the expert way in which he made believable a cast of characters
that will live with me for a long time.
Review by Eric Brown.
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