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Failure is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is the end of the beginning. This, in a nutshell, is the message of Ashley Stokes’ new short story collection: The Syllabus of Errors: Twelve Stories of Obsession, Loss and Getting in A State.
Stokes draws on a well-established literary tradition in these stories. We are in a world of misfits, alienated young men: clever losers. It is easy to imagine that seminal text of the intellectual loner, Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, sitting on the author’s book shelf. Dostoevsky’s underground man was of course not the first literary character in which unhappiness, alienation and intense rationalism sit side by side. But he can fairly be called the forefather of all the twentieth and twenty-first century fictional misfits that followed.
And what all these young men – it nearly is always men – share is their compulsion to talk after their social mishaps. They become most fully themselves after things have gone wrong, when their first attempts at life have failed.
“He would never be able to say it, change her mind, get her to stay in Berlin because of how he felt about her…he couldn’t bring himself to phone [her] and listen to the message. He already knew her phone was switched off…In the Underground station, in the tunnel and recorded by CCTV Grant dawdled hands in pockets towards his platform as a Scots piper in a black kilt and Tam O’Shanter played a stuttering drone.”
Most of the stories in The Syllabus of Errors follow a ‘he’ and a ‘she’. ‘He’, as indicated, is a loner. All the world around him, typically as described in his voice, has some bearing on the misfit. Often, physical reality serves to underline his alienation.
In “Island Gardens”, for example, the narrator sees golden islands in the sea at the moment of his physical collapse, rather than just spots of land in the Thames estuary, removing him from all that is beautiful in his own mind. ‘She’ is the love interest in the stories (just as the prostitute Liza, of course, is in Notes from Underground), the one the loner always thinks about. But ‘she’ is barely a physical presence. We learn very little, often nothing, about hair colour, height, peculiar ways of smiling and looking, the way ‘she’ moves or stands still, the sound of her voice, the way she breathes. One imagines the loner would simply not know what to do in the event of a sudden activity on her side. He would still be talking, talking, forever talking, even when the time for it has gone.
A common narrative in the stories is that of the young man waiting to meet the girl he is interested in, only for her not to turn up, or to reject him when they do meet. The wait makes up the narrative: the way in which the young man moves through a world in which the young woman will not want him. The people that impinge on his consciousness during this anxious time are the grotesques. The decisiveness that eludes the loner is seen as vulgarity in those that do things. Young lovers, kissing in public, are held in scorn; salesmen with targets and pep talks become obscene loudmouths, military enthusiasts are ridiculous fantasists.
“Her face seemed to hold two expressions: wide frightened eyes above a resolute and defiant mouth. His hands were now suspended at her shoulders. She must have sensed that he was about to touch her – he only wanted to comfort her; he only wanted, again, to understand – because she tried to conceal a shiver as a shrug.”
The two strongest stories are “Storming the Bastille” and “The Syllabus of Errors”. In the first of these, a young couple are on holiday in a cheap Parisian hotel. The girl, Nikki, had indicated she would sleep with the young man, Greg, if he would take her to Hotel de Crillon. This is like saying I will sleep with you if you take me to the Ritz: the Crillon is one of the world’s most famous hotels and certainly among its most expensive. What makes this story stand out is its almost gentle ending: the young man manages briefly to drop his ridiculousness, and sees the girl as she really is.
In “Storming the Bastille”, a Nazi scholar, Ludo, meets Claire, a girl he tried to date in high school. There is the same sense the loner distances himself from his wilfulness: he sees Claire distinctly at the end, and the pain of it does not make him sharper, cleverer, but fills him with a rich melancholy. Ludo imagines living his life again, taking a different road than an academic interest in the Nazis, being therefore less repellent to others, and becoming more attractive, romantically successful. Other readers may be most interested in A Short Story About a Short Film, a story almost wholly written in footnotes, or in I Remember Nothing, one of the most formally traditional of the stories.
“At this age, eighteen, Greg feels old…He’s fluent in French. He’s read Camus and Sartre. He’s read The Interpretation of Dreams, The Communist Manifesto and The Economic Consequences of the Peace. He appreciates Moise Kipling and Man Ray…The only thing lacking is sex.”
In terms of style, the stories are of a kind. This is occasionally a drawback. The narratives range from modern day London and 1980s Surrey to Fascist Italy and Weimar Berlin. In many of these different times and places, the young man has the same voice. This is particularly evident in his habit of not calling others by their first names. He instead calls people Loomparettes, Adverts, Reverses, the Usher, the Lawyer, Mutton Guts, Big Dump and so on. It is a kind of distancing of others from their own selves, they instead become cerebral constructs in the young men’s minds. The stories are certainly unified by this technique, and to some readers, this may be a virtue. But a greater stylistic variety, a greater sense of differentiation, would have leant the collection breadth. It is the achievement of seeing others as they really are, and the self-realisation that this can bring, that can lift these misfit stories to the next level.
There are several stories in this collection that are first rate, the ones worth re-reading on a cold winter day. The strongest were those stories in which cleverness sat alongside melancholy, in which wilfulness submitted to powerlessness. The misfit becomes most attractive when he stops and listens. But that, of course, is easier said than done. It looks like alienation is here to stay.
“Two nights before Big Dump had swallowed a king prawn vindaloo and fifteen bottles of Oranjiboom…the king prawn then fought a dogged rearguard action in the Wookey Hole-like cave-system that was Big Dump’s bowels, morphing and mutating into a gigantic basalt millipede that slithered out segment by segment all morning and all afternoon.”
The Syllabus of Errors was published in February 2013. Buy it at Foyles.