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All good things must come to an end

Some Trick: thirteen stories
by Helen DeWitt
New Directions, £22.95, pp.197

Certain American States
by Catherine Lacey
Granta, £12.99, pp.190

by Oisín Fagan
Head of Zeus, £8.99, pp.269

Notes from the Fog
by Ben Marcus
Granta, £12.99, pp.266

The Abyss and Other Stories
by Leonid Andreyev
Alma Books, £8.99, pp.315

Only Helen DeWitt would start a book with an epigraph of her own pop-culture mash-up poetry and end with an appeal to buy the writer coffee.

Author of just two previous published novels (about a multilingual child prodigy, and an encyclopaedia salesman turned sex-peddler, respectively), DeWitt keeps a pure flame, and doesn’t want to hear why others won’t.

She and her characters inhabit an intellectual, emotional, and physical triangle between New York, Berlin, and Gloucester Green bus station, Oxford. ‘It would mean a lot to me to work with [an editor] who admired Bertrand Russell,’ one of her narrators remarks… about her children’s book. Another one has ‘views on the Kaddish of Mr Leon Wieseltier’. And DeWitt’s endnotes (indeed) reference the cost of pigments in Renaissance painting, the clever-clever comics website xkcd, and a proof (non sic) found in another of her own unpublished novels, on the distinction between X and x.

Some Trick‘s abiding theme is thwarted genius – especially where that genius is female. The art world features heavily, as does the relationship between being an artist and, say, being able to feed oneself. Ditto publishing, of course, and the rest of her preoccupying passions: music, languages (she speaks or reads about a dozen), maths (stats, specifically), and, perhaps inevitably, computer programming.

In a story full of distribution graphs, a typical DeWitt sentence runs: ‘Peter had written a book of robot tales with a happy beginning which had made, as it turned out, what seemed a lot of money, and yet not enough money to mitigate contractual relations with persons who had professed to love it yet sought to remove references to ei?.’ Beneath this is a four-paragraph-long note, rolled over from the previous page, on information design.

And yet it’s all perversely readable, and entertaining. Some trick.

Catherine Lacey’s first protagonist is an ex-husband knocked for six by a short story his ex-wife just published. Another woman clears out her dead husband’s closet. A narrator cares for an unloving godfather. A businessman notes the letter firing him reads like a haiku. These Certain American States are, in the main, discomfiting and sad.

Lacey’s prose is free and full of pinpoint observations. There’s a type of shirt ‘meant to be borrowed from a man.’ WWJD? bracelets are a mug’s game, since Jesus had ‘supernatural powers… not the options the rest of us have.’ The great, flat, modern statement: ‘I wasn’t in the mood to be a person.’

But why is everyone so lost? The last thing any of these Americans are is ‘certain’. Most of them are frankly on the brink, adrift in a world where the ‘density and hue of their front lawn’ is the (admittedly brain-dead) measure of normality. One worries she’s ‘the only woman I know who swings hetero any more…. It feels unevolved.’ A second that she ‘can’t see how anything is organised.’ You can’t help wondering if they ‘feel’ too much. Is nobody at peace in that whole damn country?? To the stiff-lipped Brit, perhaps, there is a slight sowhatishness about the entire business.

Such airy ponderables do not intrude on Oisín Fagan’s Hostages.

His first long story (90 pages) is told from the perspective of a bomb. A riot breaks out in a ‘semi-rural, pre-suburban’ high school, a Lord of the Flies environment of scatalogical attacks, waterboarding and handjobs: ‘“Here lads… you can only do that for a couple of minutes, or he’ll die…”’ (the waterboarding, that is). Ahh, but ‘what is life but the promise of love?’ muses the bomb.

The other three big stories – of a plague of dead bodies, ‘Tanzanian’ diamond-mining, and a hyper-local tribal matriarchy – share this whiff of allegorical dystopian future-history, culminating in the 17-page ‘Costellos’ (my favourite), a single-paragraph, epic mock-tragedy, stretching from 1574 to 2144.

The end of the world is seemingly always just around the corner. But Hostages is funny and cheerful for all that (‘cross-eyed with sobriety’ ranks among my all-time favourite throwaway descriptions), and Fagan renders his DayGlo-Bruegelish nightmares in a careless, cliché-free Anglo-Irish (‘the quaintness of never having a pair of shoes’), with nods to South Park, Roy Keane, Alien, ‘Cotton Eye Joe’, and a general dose of that reflexive blackness that is the birthright of every proper Irishman. As queues form at the corpse-disposal sites, a speaker says ‘“I know the ladies’ committee who’ve worked with Tidy Towns before have had similar experiences…”’

Ben Marcus is often referred to as a genius. It says so right here on the cover, amid some other strong claims. But I am new to him – and Notes from the Fog may not have been the place to start.

In (yet another) vague, bleak, technologically-distorted near-future – as much unmagic as it is unreal – a young boy threatens his parents; couples argue; people get sick. The premises are interesting, the characters comprehensible, the dialogue good. Marcus has a talent for the barbs of domestic passive aggression and the terrible cruelty of children (one doesn’t ask…), and there are some tremendous branchlines for his trains of thought (terrorism as ‘a tax on comfort’, anybody?).

As with Lacey, though, it is what’s running through his characters’ minds that is the problem. Most of these people are – or should be – medicated. Some are actually the subjects of experiments; but they are all, as the Americans would say, ‘in their heads.’ And if Marcus’s relentlessly agitated prose (there are a lot of similes) is perfect for their truly epic levels of overthinking, ‘Wasn’t every bit of motion, anywhere, an invasion?’ Well, no. During a dangerous thunderstorm, ‘The road is kind of gross.’ Who thinks, or speaks, like that? Some child wears a teacher’s skin as his ‘shirt’. Except he doesn’t, obviously. It’s all just intellectual noodling, and page by page it comes to feel like writing aimed at other writers, neither unreadable nor brilliant, just rather pointlessly obtuse.

Amid all the linguistic and psychological pyrotechnics, one repeatedly finds oneself thinking ‘What is the actual story here?’ The storylines themselves appear to teeter on the verge of craziness, so otherworldly as to relieve the reader of any obligation to commit to them. Often as not, they just sink back into whatever mental (sic) landscape they loomed out of. Not particularly beginning, not really ending either. Perhaps this works in lit mags, individually; but in book form the cumulative result is frankly hard work.

As Marcus himself writes in ‘Critique'(!), ‘It amounts to a celebration of technique, suggesting a creator slightly too satisfied by method… as if the making of something mattered more than that thing’s purpose.’ Self-knowledge, maybe. But if this is genius, I don’t stand tall enough to see it.

Novelist, playwright, and gentleman revolutionary in the 1905 go-round, Leonid Andreyev was particularly infamous for his story ‘The Abyss’, in which a scholar and his sweetheart, out walking in the woods, exchanging poems, are set upon by a gang of drunken peasants (I’m not scared,” said Tolstoy, proto-bolshily).

The rest of this collection (some of it in English for the first time) is every bit as grim and Russian as the title number. A man with toothache goes to see the Crucifixion. A provincial official goes mad. A priest wants to convert to Islam. And almost everybody dies.

Andreyev’s tales may not be as contemporary as all these other authors’; there may be a ‘fateful inevitability’ for their protagonists; and one of them – the stories – may, in fact, have caused the First World War. But at least – like all things, good and bad – they end, is all I’m saying.

For the Spectator, in a shorter edit

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