Now here’s a book which has clearly been made with great care and attention by its publishers (Roast Books of London): An A-Z of Possible Worlds is presented as a box of twenty-six individually-stapled booklets, one for each letter of the alphabet, each containing its own story. Happily, the tales themselves more than live up to the presentation.
Anne Tillyer has written a set of stories which each concern a place that doesn’t exist. Generally speaking, they stand alone: there are several scattered cross-references and commonalities, but the unity of the collection emerges not from them, but from Tillyer’s style, which I’d broadly characterise, rather unhelpfully, as a ‘storytelling’ style – that is, she captures something of the timeless quality, the flowing rhythms, of folktales. This can lend itself to imagery, such as the following evocation of place:
The central boglands are both the beginning and the end of the world; the place where everything comes to nothing and nothing ever changes. Nature lies in a coma, time has given up trying to pass and the only things that move are the flies and the fog and the driving rain. Here, the natural cycles of birth and decay have unravelled and run in a straight line. Even the rain that falls on the bog is never released into rivers or the roots of trees but seeps from puddle to mud and stagnates there forever. It is the stasis that all life must overcome and to which all life will return. Evolution never made it past first post… (‘The Bog’, p. 1)
This is a long beginning that repeats its point, but I think that very technique works well here: an accretion of detail, like layers of sediment, that brings home the stifling atmosphere of the bog. (The description continues as Tillyer moves into the story proper, with similarly atmospheric results.)
It’s not all about the imagery, though. There are stories here with fascinating ideas, such as ‘The Labyrinth’, with its people whose ancestors made home on an island generations ago, and who now have no sense of time; reading about their actions is unsettling, but also fires the imagination. There are also tales of the absurd, like ‘The Job Centre’, in which a country’s leader declares that there is full employment in his nation – which is news to the people queuing in the job centre at that moment. A plan must be devised to create work for these people, and the results raise a wry laugh.
As much as the stories in An A-Z of Possible Worlds stand alone, they gain considerably from being part of the whole. Not all of them completely satisfy as stories in their own right – there are some, for example, where a turn of phrase really stands out in my mind rather than the plot – but these are bolstered by other tales, which have complementary strengths. It’s the whole edifice of what Tillyer has created which impresses most, rather than individual pieces of it.
Which is not to say that there aren’t some excellent individual stories here. To pick out two: ‘The Youth Hostel’ concerns a remote hostel which is one day visited by a journalist from an interiors0 magazine, who writes a feature on the place as an example of ‘rustic charm’. The popularity of the youth hostel grows exponentially as a result, but visitors don’t necessarily get what they were expecting. This story is both neatly plotted and makes pointed commentary on attitudes to ‘tradition’.
Another story I liked in particular was ‘The Casino’, which is about a country colonised by the wealthy and turned into their own private playground, where they can enjoy the finest luxuries and the best healthcare. But this lifestyle is threatened by too many people living too long, and the proposed solution is not a pleasant one… Again, this is a nicely constructed tale (there is a certain inevitability about the plotting of both ‘The Casino’ and ‘The Youth Hostel’, but Tillyer’s craft is such that one does not feel short-changed by this), with an added vein of satire, this time on the subject of authority.
The way that Tillyer writes about places in these stories – often in the abstract, without names or many other specifics – they really do become ‘possible worlds’. They’re places that one knows don’t exist, but could, perhaps, if the world had more interstices. Imaginary as they are, though, it is fascinating to explore these worlds in this remarkable collection.