Short stories have an awkward place in the history of literature. For some writers, short stories are their preferred medium, with every sentence polished until it gleams like a diamond while being just as tough. Other writers are better at longer material and in using language to build up a picture in smaller increments. All of this works – some stories should be nothing more than a pub anecdote while others deserve a format that doubles as a doorstop. The important thing is that the method serves the story.
Anna Maconochie’s debut collection Only the Visible Can Vanish wobbles a bit on these fronts since it is very clearly a debut. Some of the pieces, which are described therein as the first pieces she had ever published (although it’s debatable whether pointing that out is ever a good idea), show the importance of the need to revisit early works with a clear eye when placed alongside more mature writing. Their inclusion weakens the impact of the strongest stories, which deal with the alienation of modern London life and the impossibility of finding true love in an artificial city environment. These stories, which happen to be the longest, are also the best.
But even the stories with a more frivolous premise, such as “The Real Beast,” which modernises the old fairy tale into a failing marriage between a posh Brit with daddy issues and a French aristocrat, have sharp moments of observation. Their sexual compatibility involves being unable to compromise over each other’s favourite sexual positions but being unwilling to discuss it directly. “The Eight” is about a man who in a London chain pub picks up a number. An actual number, not a metaphor, with whom he goes on to have a one-night stand. The nuances of the awkward chit-chat between two beings who have only just met and will never speak again are captured in agonising and specific detail.
‘Martin, can you please pour me my drink?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You have to pour it through me.’
She might as well have asked him to pour the drink through a basketball hoop straight on to the emerald velvet of his sofa. The sofa was his, not the landlord’s, and it was the one nice bit of furniture he owned.
‘Please don’t be afraid,’ said the Eight.
Martin closed his eyes as he tipped the glass over her upper donut but he didn’t hear anything splash on the sofa. Then he opened them wide.
‘What the…?’ his sofa was untouched – the liquid disappeared into thin air once it had fallen through the Eight. It didn’t evaporate, it just went somewhere else that Martin knew that he couldn’t see or know about. It was hard to look through her donuts anyway – her dark anti-glow made him squint.
Her ability to describe the nuances of human interaction is best when it’s about the subtle ways two people interact with each other. The shortest stories are also the most explicitly sexual but they aren’t very titillating.
The title story also could stand to have been longer. It’s about a woman who after a career setback chooses to live a hand-to-mouth life in cheap East London houseshares and temporary jobs. Her slide out of view and enormous resentment of the life choice that will integrate her into society again are not unpicked in a way that makes the character seem real. In order to feel like we are dealing with an actual person and not just an immature character exercise, it would have benefitted from more detail and more human feeling. The same in true in “Derma,” where an unhappy office worker meets a talking fox who reveals her true character to herself.
One of the strongest stories is “Future Digital,” which is told from the POV of an overwhelmed assistant at a media organisation which is not quite named as the BBC. In trying to run the diary of an uncontrollable manager within a set-up where there are never enough basics such as meeting rooms or co-workers you can trust, she is also supposed to be building a life for herself. But her struggle to cope with the pressure of the job makes working on her personal projects or dating impossible. The slow crumbling of her confidence and initiative under officespeak banalities and too many reply-all emails as well as the pressure from jealous friends and well-meaning family who simply do not understand what modern office life is like is excellent.
Nimble, be nimble. That’s the skill, that’s the spirit. Don’t think about the wasted effort on unused pre-booked meeting rooms and the other assistants clamouring for them, unwanted agenda printouts, cancelled display screen orders for his many presentations that still must be paid for.
So grateful. Perspective, that’s the key to it all. Beat the recession, beat the other contender, asked for a less paltry salary, thanks to the helpful spy you know in HR, and you nailed it.
The power of the story works due to its accumulation of microaggressions, showing how a cheerful and confident woman can be slowly undermined into regretting and resenting every one of her choices. And this is someone who, on the surface, has a fortunate life based on both luck – of getting to work for the corporation – and skill – of being able to function in its complicated environment. Maconochie wonderfully manages the character’s slow disintegration and grief; the only shame is that the other stories don’t rise to the same level of emotional intelligence.
The final story, “The Rats and the Rabbits” is about a man who is agonising over whether to confront his lover with his realisation that she is married. He hated feeling like this, but he managed to hide it. Mostly. He felt Marina observing this side of him, this chewed-up person that was him, and also very much a distortion of him. He sensed a warm, quiet tolerance from her, which he worried was indifference. We spend the story inside his thought process, of what he hopes to gain through telling her, what he knows as they spend a few snatched days together – time that he greatly values and does not want to lose despite his unhappiness at being second-best in her life.
As a calling card, these stories should serve Maconochie quite well. As she matures as a writer, it will be interesting to see her explore deeply the nuances of human relationships, in a longer and more detailed format, whether in bed or in the office.
Anna Maconochie was born in London, where she now lives and works. She has had stories published in the Erotic Review, the Dublin Review and the Bitter Oleander. This is her first short story collection.
Sarah Manvel lives in London and is looking for an agent for her own novel. She reviews films for criticsnotebook.com and can be found on twitter as @typewritersarah.
Only the Visible Can Vanish is published by Cultured Llama. Author bio courtesy of the same.