Dazzling the Gods by Tom Vowler — Tamim Sadikali

And now an adult in his thirties, but with only 15 years of living to show for that… Movement coming vicariously, limbs lifted to be washed, torso turned like a pig on a spit, cavities eviscerated. Weekly visits to a common room, where he would be lowered into a window-side chair, head supported by a horseshoe cushion. Spoon-fed and another form of protest as he spat food over a tireless nurse… It seemed unfathomably cruel that Blue should have lived every one of those days to have passed since that day in the woods.

Youth, they say, is wasted on the young. Put another way, it’s only once the fruits of jawani wither, that we appreciate what we have — what we had. Life’s cruellest trick is perhaps the collapsing down of time, wherein we may not even realise when we cross the Rubicon. One moment, the future is an endless expanse, virgin and bright, and then suddenly we are out to sea, with no hope of finding land again. 

In Dazzling the Gods, the lecturer and writer Tom Vowler picks at this singular idea — that circumstance and events overtake; blindside and overwhelm. That sometimes, things don’t just work out. That time is not always a healer, and not every injury has a corrective, or even a palliative. And for the reader at, ahem, the right stage in life — these themes really detonate:

A young couple kiss against a centuries-old trunk, incautious, solipsistic. From their lack of wilting he figures them locals, Tuscans for whom the heat is a frivolous matter, who know nothing of wet Tuesday mornings on the M25. He imagines what it would take to interrupt them, what measure of sound or force would untwine the pair, remembers on some level the exhilaration they are feeling. It’s not that he begrudges them exactly; more that he wishes to point out love’s inexorable arc. 

Vowler’s stories are a little unconventional: the reader has work to do in finding their loci. But once that shape becomes clear, it’s often jarring; jagged. The woman, destroyed by the heroin which her boyfriend introduced her to, stealing a baby following the stillbirth of her own. The bonds forged between siblings in the furnace of a dysfunctional family. Sudden death and the open threads it leaves, spooling moronically in its wake.

Vowler’s stories are a little unconventional: the reader has work to do in finding their loci. But once that shape becomes clear, it’s often jarring; jagged.

None of this makes for easy reading, save for Vowler’s storytelling being exquisite. In an age when experimentation with form is all the rage, and the beautiful word has been somewhat deprecated, the finesse of the prose is breath-taking. But beyond beautiful words, the power in Vowler’s stories lies in them being living, breathing things – they gestate within the reader, long after the final word. 

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There is little humour here but what there is works well. Here’s the ageing alpha-male from “Banging Che Guevara” — a story of a love-triangle / clusterfuck with three points — justifying his affair with the office intern:

Clive can’t help himself; it’s in his nature. And you shouldn’t deny your nature. He has needs. It’s not as if his wife is interested in such matters anymore. It’s probably grown over. 

…and said intern, lying back and thinking of… River Island:

Her boss has normally come by now. That was what made it bearable, the brevity. She issues words of encouragement, tells him he’s a tiger, says she’s hot for him, that it’s the best she’s had. If they’re done by half-past, she can buy that top in River Island before it closes.

But it’s sobriety, not humour, that defines this collection. Picture this… your brother, a few years older and something of a shield for you in the rough and tumble of adolescence, takes your place in a boy-ish dare which goes horribly wrong, rendering him spastic. Time passes and the teenage years are left behind, but only you mature into adulthood. You take your place in the world, find a partner, have children, whilst your brother cannot even wipe his own backside. And yet that bond between you remains. Or… you’re a young woman in your prime, enjoying all the good things, when you fall pregnant. Your partner, still bootstrapping his life and career, convinces you to have an abortion. Reluctantly, you agree and the relationship eventually ends. You both move on, find new partners, with your ex establishing himself in all aspects of life — as a man, as a breadwinner, as a husband and, poignantly, as a father. You, however, are subsequently found to be infertile — which doubles-up to terminate your relationship too. Years pass and, by chance, your paths again cross. You go to his house, an expansive bungalow-type residence off-road, far from the madding crowd. The walls of the kitchen are adorned with paintings and things done by the kids, whilst the living room exhibits wealth and taste, both understated. A sleepy dog lies by an open hearth. You want to say that this is the life you always imagined for yourself, that somehow, this was your destiny too, but instead you make small-talk, share a coffee, give him a polite hug and leave. In both stories, the payload lies in what is not said — what is left for the reader to muse upon. And in the main, it’s devastating. 

Fiction is evolving, and arguably it’s the short form pushing the boundaries. Increasingly, the reader is not a passive consumer but instead an active participant. Without their engaging, and picking up on scent trails left by the author, the reading experience is reduced. (Letti Park by Judith Hermann and the late season by Stephen Hines are recent collections that share the same ambition – the execution by the latter being flawless). And Dazzling the Gods bears the very same hallmark, of challenging the reader to hunt and chase for meaning.  

Fiction is evolving, and arguably it’s the short form pushing the boundaries. Increasingly, the reader is not a passive consumer but instead an active participant.

On the surface, there is nothing especially noteworthy in the grist of these stories — relationships, familial or sexual, are where pretty much every story starts. The singular focus though on middle-age — on that point when one’s situation crystalizes; when the fog on one’s road lifts and one sees the fork now passed, and the wrong turn taken — is, for this reviewer at least, unusual. And that there are so few attempts to do the British thing and laugh it off — that the author instead wants us to confront the bare-naked horror of real life, does indeed stand out. But it’s the ‘timing’ that gives all this potential its kinetic snap. Vowler is an Arvon tutor and editor of the literary journal Short Fiction, and it shows — he conducts his work to perfection. Except for one story, “The Grandmaster of Gaza”, (which suffers from the picking of low-hanging fruit), everything that Vowler attempts hits its target. I can’t think of a finer, more impactful, more bitter-sweet short story collection.


Tamim Sadikali is the author of the novel Dear Infidel (Hansib, 2014). He is currently working on a short story collection.  @TamimSadikali

Tom Vowler is editor of the literary journal Short Fiction, and lectures in Creative Writing at Plymouth University. @tom_vowler

Dazzling the Gods is published by Unbound.

Image: Hand of GodMr. Gray, public domain.