Sunday, 19 November 2017

Make the reader do the work

Three books that work the reader 
hard, and are the better for it

Show, don’t tell. It’s the classic advice to writers. My character was woken by a recurring nightmare of the night she fell asleep at the wheel and drove her car into an oak tree by the side of the road, and was cut out and taken to hospital where she spent 18 hours in theatre as surgeons attempted to reconstruct her legs. But I shan’t write that. I’ll make her wake in sweat-soaked sheets, haunted by a vague memory of drowsiness and then an impact and the shatter of glass and the crunch of metal; and then I’ll have her lift herself upright from the bed, the pins her thighs hurting her as she leans to take hold of her stick. The reader can fill in the gaps, and in so doing they will commit themselves to the story and engage with their own imagination.

But I could, if I wished, take it further. Let us say that the reader learns nothing but that our woman’s sleep is disturbed, and even that only by implication. She may, coincidentally, express a little fear when a passenger, and we learn, in an unconnected vignette, that she cannot walk far. These facts are scattered across the surface of the story so that only the attentive reader will find and connect them. If they fail to do so, they will know nothing of the accident; the book will not move them, and they will not know why. If they pick up the clues, however, the story will come to life for them through the agency of their own mind’s eye. This will be more vivid than a writer’s words.

The three books I review here are by exponents of this art, but each in their own way. In Samuel Astbury’s dystopian Forgetting, one knows what is happening but does not know why. Yet now and then there will be a clue glinting in the grass. The short stories in Rebecca Gransden’s Rusticles, by contrast, are not set in dystopia; they are rooted in a world almost crushing in its familiarity, and yet the reader is always eerily aware of something that they have not been told. Finally there is Leo X. Robertson’s extraordinary Findesferas, now republished as Out Black Spot, in which a fantastical story is told in so deadpan a way that we accept the lack of an explanation until the end, when we look back at where we have been.

It helps that all three books are written well. They may be hard to understand, but not to read – indeed, they are a pleasure, so that it is a shock when we realise just how much the writers have messed with our heads.

First, Samuel Astbury.


A young woman is “born” in a Manchester car park. She has no idea who she is. But she has credit cards and ID in her pockets and knows that her name is Elizabeth.

She establishes herself in a flat, gets a job – but is haunted by memories that link her identity to that of a boy in a town outside the city. She goes in search of him. It is a quest that will take her to a strangely deserted Cheshire dormitory town, where she sees something deeply disturbing; then to Hong Kong; and thence to the megalopolis of Shenzen, where she must confront a strange horror that has followed her from England. What is that horror? What does it mean? Is it a part of her, or of the boy she seeks?Don’t expect easy answers – this is Samuel Astbury so you’re going to have to find your own. But it’ll be worth the read.

Forgetting is Astbury's third book. He’s a master of dystopian mystery. His second book, War Blanket, was an absorbing thriller set in a near future that was both familiar and yet radically changed by climate change (making it part of what’s apparently a growing genre called Cli-Fi). However, Forgetting contains several references to Astbury’s first book, Cloud Storage, the story of a British backpacker’s frenetic journey through an Asia of drugs, nightclubs, neon and alienation, ending with a tech-related, ice-white iNightmare from which the main character struggles to escape. It was obviously written, and edited, in a hurry. But it was so vibrant and well-imagined that it was one of my reads of 2014. Forgetting is clearly intended to be related in some way, but Astbury never says how. Probably there is another book ahead in which he will explain – to the extent that he ever does.

It doesn’t matter. Forgetting can stand alone. Elizabeth’s “birth” in Manchester, her journey to Hong Kong and her long walk into China, are wonderfully well described; Astbury’s a very visual writer and every page is a pleasure. As Elizabeth walks through Manchester in the night: “budget brand cigarette ends and splashes of pearlescent oil. Hoodied wraiths with mottled, oily skin huddled together in disused off-licence doorways. Decaying terraced houses and late-eighties smoked glass office blocks.” In Hong Kong: “ and concrete monoliths forming a supercondensed, vertical city. Live octopus and dangling red meats neighboured a fleet of glistening 65in OLED television sets. Hard-smoking grandmothers fired globules of phlegm at the pristine pavement outside a flagship branch of Versace. ...I gorged on every image.” I did, too.

Shenzhen: Dystopia? (Alison Cassidy)
Moreover, while Astbury never tells us exactly what’s going on, he scatters enough clues for the reader to build their own theories. Thus Elizabeth wonders whether she is dreaming of the boy, or whether she is stuck in his dream. Now and again the nature of reality itself is called into question. As Elizabeth walks through the countryside beyond Hong Kong: “The roar of insects near-deafening. Cicadas, crickets, grasshoppers and katydids. As I listened more closely, I noticed that the cacophony was in fact a single looping sample. Some obscure, low-bandwidth proprietary format, I thought to myself. It was more than adequate though. It was fit for purpose. It sustained my disbelief.” This is a theme with Astbury, in Cloud Storage and to some extent War Blanket as well; what is technology? Does it subvert reality and identity?

I really liked this, as I did Astbury’s previous two books. I don’t know where he’s going with the Cloud Storage theme. I’m not sure I care. I’m enjoying the ride.

From Shenzhen we go to the prototypical English suburbs. Rebecca Gransden’s collection of short stories, Rusticles, sucks us into her imaginary town – Hilligoss, the most normal of places – and then confronts us with the unknown, the sinister and the supernatural against a background so familiar that these stories have a weirdness all their own. They are also written in simple, elegant prose. In fact these stories are compelling – for me; but they are subtle.

The most obvious of these stories is the second, Dried Peas on a Wall, in which young girls dare each other to ring the doorbell of the house of a reclusive lady who is rarely seen. Nothing happens when they do. It is only from the girls’ conversation that we realise one of them has seen something elsewhere in the town that really is dreadful. It left me a little in shock. Other stories are indirect. In the one that follows, The Serpentine, a man makes his annual trip to see the local smackheads and ask if they know what has happened to his son. His actions when he returns home make us wonder if he does not, in fact, know all too well. But we are not told. Another story involves the ghostly presence of a child and there is a grim hint of how his life may have been ended, but again we are not told; we must use our imagination. This subtlety endows Gransden’s stories with real impact - and even more if you read them twice.

But this is probably what Gransden intended. She has done this before. In her 2015 debut novel, anenogram. (sic), a mysterious young girl is picked up by an adult man, and they travel together through the English landscape; you know at once that this may not end well. But it is not clear who the girl is and where she came from. After a while, however, you realise that this might not be the point. Moreover in anemogram., as in Rusticles, a big part of the book’s power lies not in the story but in the telling of it, for both are beautifully-written with a very detailed, evocative sense of place.

I greatly like Gransden’s work and would like to see more of it, but I think we’ll be waiting a while. She clearly crafts her work with care, and one suspects it doesn’t bother her if a short story takes her a year. It will be worth the wait. In the meantime, these stories are challenging – but those who are prepared to read them with attention will not regret it, and will likely remember what they have read for a very long time.


The third and last book takes us back to sci-fi, but in a way quite unlike anything that I’ve ever read before. It also takes us to South America.

I’ve never been to Paraguay, but I’ve seen it. Some years ago I attended a conference in the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu. In between sessions, a number of colleagues crossed the bridge over the Paraná River to the Paraguayan side to buy cut-price peripherals. One morning we drove past the bridge and I looked across to the opposite bank, which was dull-green and misty – it was a grey, humid morning. In a flippant mood, I asked someone, “What goes on in Paraguay?”

“What do you mean?” he asked.
“I suppose I’m wondering, why is Paraguay?”
He thought for a moment.
“Well, you get cheap USB sticks there,” he said.

Writer Leo X. Robertson does know something about Paraguay and in Out Black Spot (originally published as Findesferas), he weaves history, science fiction and Guaraní mythology together to create an original novel that is highly readable, but also – despite being quite short – has an almost epic quality.

At the beginning, we’re in a post-apocalyptic world. Someone has bred bacteria that can clean oil spills, but it’s got out of control and cleaned up most of the world’s oil. Now countries are fighting over what little is left, using pre-Oil Age technology such as steamboats and muskets of brass. Paraguay, led by a cruel and vainglorious Marshal, is embroiled in a war against Brazil. Brothers Juan and Matías are fighting; their mother and Matías’s wife are struggling to survive in an imperilled and hungry Asunción.

Then the two women are visited by the Pombero, a boy-like, stunted creature from Guaraní mythology. The monsters of the Guaraní creation myth – Robertson lists and describes them – are, like the humans, starving, and have spotted Juan and Matías in the jungle. Shall they eat them? Or will the women agree to provide another human as sacrifice instead? Meanwhile, alongside this story, is a parallel one – a science-fiction plot in which a spaceship has lifted Juan away from the earth.

Francisco Solano López
This all sounds a bit mad, but this book richly rewards readers who try to understand it. A quick bit of Googling established that Robertson does know his Guaraní mythology; the Pombero behaves as it should, as do the other creatures, including the awful Luison, which lives on rotting flesh. Moreover the Marshal’s campaign is, it turns out, a rerun (more or less) of Marshal Francisco Solano López’s towards the end of the War of the Triple Alliance in the 1860s. In this war, Paraguay took on Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, and lost, with catastrophic consequences. The dead are thought to have amounted to 400,000-odd, including about half Paraguay’s population; many died through disease and starvation. Yet little is known of it outside Latin America.

Why write a novel in which mythical creatures eat rotting flesh, a 150-year-old war is refought and a spaceship takes off for an unknown destination? Everyone will draw their own conclusion; although a good read, this book isn’t easy to pin down. I thought I had the answer somewhere towards the end, and it does concern oil, its organic origins and the cycle of existence to which we are all bound. Mythical creatures consume flesh, but so does oil – a cycle by which all life (including us) is transformed below the earth from organic matter into a substance from which its energy can be re-released. Perhaps Robertson is saying that, if we choose to ride this cycle, we become caught in a loop in which oil both gives life and consumes it, and history will repeat itself until we break that cycle. But every reader is going to have to figure this out for themselves.

They will enjoy doing so. To be sure, Out Black Spot isn’t perfect – it takes concentration to read (it starts with an Epilogue, which does not help). The science-fiction elements do not always work as well as the war and the mythical creatures do. Even so, whatever Robertson’s message (if any), Out Black Spot is strikingly original; there can’t be many books that remind you of both Gabriel García Márquez and Kurt Vonnegut. I strongly recommend this. And one thing’s for sure; next time someone mentions Paraguay, I shan’t think of memory sticks. 

Three books that make you work. You won't regret it.

Mike Robbins's novella Dog! is available as an ebook for just 99c (US) or 99p (UK), or as a paperback, from  Amazon (US, UK, and all other country sites), Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Indigo, iTunes and more. Find all his books on Amazon here.

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