Friday, 15 July 2011
‘Stories for Night Time And Some for The Day’ – Ben Loory (Penguin)
Much rarer though are the occasions where taking a chance on a random book will uncover an absolute gem of a book that will leave you astounded by just how much it has been able to reach into your head and mess with your very soul. A book that you just can’t stop thinking about. Last night I was lucky enough to come across one of these books, Ben Loory’s debut short story collection. It’s not perfect by any means but it’s a book that I couldn’t put down until I’d finished and it’s spent every moment since then elbowing my more mundane thoughts out of the way and taunting me with the questions that it’s left unanswered.
When reviewing a short story collection I’d normally say something about each of the stories within. Not this time though, we’re looking at forty short stories here and I don’t have the time to tackle that right now (even though each story is four or five pages long at the longest, the whole book is only two hundred and ten pages long). I also suspect that you folks wouldn’t have the time to read through all that so lets just say that I’m doing you a favour and leave it at that ;o)
The other reason I’m avoiding that approach here is because Loory has written all the stories and I would invariably end up saying the same things about each one. I don’t want to do that either but it is worth talking a little about how Loory approaches each story in the book as a whole, the end effect is something really special.
Loory has the happy knack of being to take something really weird (afternoon tea with an octopus for example or a romance between two aliens) and write about it in the most ordinary way. The end result are very accessible stories that introduce you to the weirdness without you even realising it; it’s so gradual so that you don’t even know what’s going on until right at the end, the exact moment where Loory will hit you with a powerful ending over and over again. I am in awe of any author who can consistently hit the nail on the head with endings that either shock or leave you deep in thought; Ben Loory is very much a member of this select group.
At the same time, Loory also has the talent of being able to take something completely ordinary and write about it in the strangest of ways (a love shared by an elderly couple over many years for example). These stories have a similar kind of effect, as when Loory approaches his stories from the opposite direction but the end result for the whole book is all the more compelling for it. The bottom line is that you just don’t know whether you’re going to get ‘ordinarily weird’ or ‘weirdly ordinary’ (or even sometimes downright terrifying – check out ‘The Tunnel’ and you’ll see what I mean) and you find yourself having to keep reading in order to find out.
I’ve already mentioned ‘The Tunnel’ but other highlights for me were ‘The Octopus’, ‘The Man Who Went to China’ and ‘The Snake in the Throat’. The first two get picked for their weirdness while ‘The Man Who Went to China’ was chosen for an open ending that adds to the overall impact of the tale. ‘The Snake in the Throat’ however was chosen for another theme that Loory has added to the book.
Ben Loory is fond of including little messages to his tales (fables?) that are there to give you something to think about, maybe even to make you wonder if there’s something that you personally could learn. Sometimes Loory can be a little heavy-handed with these messages at the expense of the story itself; possibly because this book is meant to be as much for children as it is adults. You can understand this but it doesn’t mean that you have to like it. There were occasions where it all felt a little forced to me but, on the whole, you can’t argue with a book where the overriding message runs along the lines of, ‘be happy but keep an eye on the shadows at the same time’ (and I’m thinking of ‘The Swimming Pool’ here, another favourite).
Loory doesn’t dress up his tales in fancy prose either. He is obviously a man who appreciates the importance of a good tale well told and strips his prose right down in order that the story itself can shine. And his stories do shine, every single one of them. Loory may fall into the trap of labouring his point, every now and then, but when you look at the book as a whole... I’ve gone on about it enough already. I’m going back for a re-read of a book that has found itself my surprise read of the year.
Nine and Three Quarters out of Ten