There were some great books published in the summer which deserve your attention but which, due to reasons beyond our control, we didn’t get around to reviewing. One of these is Lara Williams’ short story collection Treats.
For a long time the short story collection was perceived by many readers either as a stop-gap between a writer’s novels, or a cash-in when someone became unexpectedly popular and a publisher wanted to get as much of their material out while the name was on everyone’s lips.
The former group would include collections such as James Kelman’s Not Not While The Giro, A.L. Kennedy’s Indelible Acts and Janice Galloway’s Blood; in the latter – you only have to remember how quickly Irvine Welsh’s The Acid House came out after Trainspotting to suspect there was some validity to that claim. However, I’ve picked all of these examples deliberately as each one sees these writers at their very best, and they should be found on any respectable bookshelf. The idea that the short story is somehow an inferior form of writing is outdated, ridiculous and just plain wrong.
This has been borne out in recent years when some of the most memorable books have included Kirsty Logan’s The Rental Heart & Other Fairytales, Anneliese Mackintosh’s Any Other Mouth, and the aforementioned Janice Galloway’s Jellyfish, each of which appeared in the more discerning critics books of the relevant year. Instead of being overlooked, as may previously have been the case, all three were held up as the best in contemporary fiction, and you cannot help but get the feeling that the short story’s time has come again.
Mention must be made of Freight Books, the publisher of Any Other Mouth and Jellyfish, as well as Treats. Their championing and promotion of short fiction is both fervent (as the recent publication of Head Land: 10 Years Of The Edge Hill Short Story Prize proves) and forward thinking as there is a strong and persuasive argument that the short story is the form of fiction which best fits the modern world. Short stories can be read in those stolen moments between all the other demands on our time. No-one is saying that longer fiction is dead – at least no-one with any sense, but the way we read in general has changed. There will always be a need to lose yourself in somebody else’s world for hours and days at a time, but, as with the way many people now listen to music, often a quick emotional and artistic hit can make all the difference to your day.
Treats makes the points I’m trying to more eloquently than I ever could. There are few better examples of the format fitting with subject matter and style. Lara Williams manages to capture the emotion, humour and pathos found in the drama of everday lives in a few pages, reminiscent of A.L. Kennedy’s 1990 debut collection Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains.
The opening story, ‘It Begins’, looks at post university life and the difference between expectations and reality until one day you have to ask, in the manner of David Byrne, “Well, how did I get here?” There is a weary disappointment with the world, not being able to enjoy the moments which should be fun as future failure is predicted and expected. The pace of events in many of the stories is unsettling as it feels as if life is passing these characters by with them often helpless to effect change.
‘Both Boys’ beautifully clarifies the perverse psychology behind the nature of attraction, forcing readers to think about why they have formed the relationships they have – an uncomfortable exercise but unavoidable. That’s what these stories do so well. They make you reflect on your own life with honesty. The best writing involves a pact between reader and writer, and when the writing offers such insight you have to respond in kind, otherwise what’s the point? You can’t help but have an intimate relationship with Treats, and it’s not always a comfortable one, but you get out what you are prepared to put in.
‘It’s A Shame About Ray’ (one of many musical references) is a tragedy which is all too believable, and reminds us, in a world where choice is supposedly endless, what can occur when ‘to choose’ actually means something. There are attempts to self-improve, to be better, faster, stronger (‘Safe Spaces’) but reality keeps intervening. For instance, you may have an idealistic idea as to the life of a writer, but have a read of ‘Sundaes At The Tipping Yard’ and you get a version which not only rings true, but which manages to move the character from having reasons to want to do it (in the form of a Creative Writing MA) to her needing to do it; something which you only fully realise has taken place at the very end.
The opening three sentences of ‘Taxidermy’ could constitute a full story in the length of a tweet, but Williams uses them to grab your attention before expanding into a short treatise on what we place importance on; how we judge ourselves and others, and how we are judged. The pressures of the modern world are a constant throughout, and just because we may view them rationally as superficial, it doesn’t make them any the less powerful or palpable. There is also, in ‘Penguins’ and ‘A Single Lady’s Manual For Parent/Teacher Evening’, the sense that life is moving pretty fast, but, as a flip side to Ferris Bueller’s advice, stopping to look around once in a while doesn’t mean you allay the danger of missing it, but rather that you can’t ignore it, and that reality can be terrifying.
Love and relationships are transient, and are often to be endured. If there is a better description of how moving on from a painful break-up feels than the opening of ‘Tributaries’, “As the tears and Tanqueray passed, the listens to Blood On The Tracks less frequent…”, then I’ve yet to read it – although, in my case it was Macallan and Oh Mercy. It’s a personal favourite, highlighting Williams’ sense of humour, which is so dry at times that you may need another gin after all. It’s the prefect finale to Treats as it leaves you wanting more, and promises great things from Lara Williams.
I realise that the above may have painted Treats as a miserable, misanthropic text, but it really isn’t, or at least only in the the way that The Smiths’ ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ or Pulp’s ‘Common People’ is. Like those songs, Williams’ displays brevity, wit, and a desire to find something romantic in life, even though it may not be conventional, or exactly because it is unconventional. One of the reasons for reviewing Treats months after I first read it is that it hasn’t left me, and I have returned to my favourite stories again and again much as I do with certain tracks on a cherished album. There is something in them that makes me want to remember previous times, places and people. Like perfect pop songs in literary form, this is storytelling at its finest.
Here is the audio version of this review: