Janice Galloway’s Jellyfish, her recently published short story collection, feels like a call to arms on at least two fronts. In the Acknowledgements she states, “Publishers are shy of short stories in the here and now, shy like people are shy of three-legged puppies, which is to say they’d love to give them a home, but are nervous of their apparent handicap in that they are not novels.” It’s a theme she returned to while promoting the book. In interview with The Scotsman, she confesses, “I’m delighted to get this book published because nobody wants to publish short stories these days. Publishers always say to me, ‘what we’d really like is for you to get on with that novel you’re writing.” She is only partly correct in that in recent years some of the best new fiction has appeared in short story collections, but more often than not they are by new and unknown writers and are published by small, independent publishers. In that sense, with Freight Books, she has found the perfect home.
It’s something she acknowledges when describing herself as “hugely grateful to Adrian Searle at Freight for taking them on…”. Recently Freight have been responsible for memorable collections from Anneliese Mackintosh (Any Other Mouth), Vicki Jarrett (The Way Out) and Rodge Glass (Lovesextravelmusic). Other notable recent collections include Kirsty Logan’s The Rental Heart And Other Fairytales, published by Salt, and Allan Wilson’s Wasted In Love by Cargo Publishing. But the fact that my list is so short suggests Galloway’s complaint is a valid one. It was not always this way.
Where Galloway is undoubtedly correct is that the short story is a form which is currently largely overlooked by the more established publishers. At the end of the last century, and concentrating on Scotland, James Kelman’s short story collections were regularly published and contain arguably his greatest work. Lanark and 1982, Janine aside, the same could be said of Alasdair Gray. Their contemporary and friend Agnes Owens’ short stories are some of the best examples you will read anywhere and from anytime (get a copy of Lean Tales to read some great examples from all three – it might just change your life). The next generation of Scottish writers were also well served, with A.L. Kennedy and Ali Smith (whose latest collection Public Library & Other Stories is also out now) both publishing memorable short stories in a number of collections in the ’90s and early noughties. They were not seen as lesser books, just great writers’ fiction presented in a shorter form.
Janice Galloway herself has a fine tradition with the short story, 1991’s Blood and 1996’s Where You Find It being particularly outstanding collections which I highly recommend. Jellyfish is a timely reminder of not only of how well she writes in this form, but of the impact which short stories can make. In capturing snippets of people’s lives they are perfect. I said that Galloway was challenging perceptions on two fronts, and the quoted observation by David Lodge which opens the book, “Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children; life’s the other way round” suggests that Galloway has decided to concentrate on the intimate and personal, and the short story is a great format for that. James Kelman believed that real drama is to be found in ordinary people’s everyday lives, and every day life rarely follows a grand narrative. It is mostly made up of memorable moments between those which are less so. Jellyfish is, in places, reminiscent of Kelman, and of Owens, in that there is a mild surrealism on show that can catch you unaware (who collects the hair from hairdresser’s floors, for instance?). However, the writer these stories remind you of the most is Janice Galloway, and that is great news because there are few who write better.
The title story sets out a wonderfully moving and magical relationship between mother and son, Monica and Calum; a private and shared experience full of vivid sights and sounds as they both see the world through the child’s eyes, their pact only disturbed by other people’s lives. ‘Looking At You’ displays an understated yet raw sensuality, and it is a lesson on how to make an impact in just over a page, something repeated in ‘That Was Then, This Is Now’ (1) and (2). ‘And Drugs And Rock And Roll’ is a story filled with memory, love and regret, and a wry, black, humour as a group of older men and women refuse to go quietly into the night. It also references Alexander Trocchi which doesn’t happen nearly enough, in my book, and which is only one of a number of literary references in Jellyfish.
‘Almost 1948’ places George Orwell, or Eric Blair to give him his real name, on Jura mourning the death of his wife and writing what was to be his final novel, 1984. As with every story it is full of detailed sights and sounds as much as feelings or phrases. There is a paragraph where Eric loses control of his motorbike, and the description is so beautiful it demands to be read over and over. ‘Burning Love’ feels like it may have been cathartic to write, as the protagonist burns a very detailed list of books and records. It is also one of the most stark and ultimately shocking stories here. The final story, ‘Distance’, is perhaps the most memorable of them all, and makes a wonderful, if heartbreaking, companion to the opening one, with a last page which will stay with you long after you have finished.
Janice Galloway has always been an innovative and playful writer, but never to the detriment of her prose. It is always a case of her putting substance over style. Jellyfish is a timely reminder that she is one of the finest writers around. Each story, each sentence, is beautifully crafted by someone who cares enough to take such care. Often when something is so meticulously crafted the results can be admirable yet cold. However, these stories exude a raw emotion that is barely contained on the page. Love, anger, loss, desire – there are passions on show which are palpable, and which stir the senses like few writers can. If you read a better book than Jellyfish this year you are a very lucky person indeed.
Here is the audio version of this review: