Tag: Robert Shearman

Robert Shearman, Everyone’s Just So So Special (2011)

Robert Shearman returns with the follow-up to his British Fantasy Award-winning collection Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical, and once again, he’s put together a superb volume of stories. As before, he’s adept at combining the outlandishly fantastical with the minutiae of everyday life and relationships; but, whereas the main theme of his previous collection was love, here Shearman is broadly concerned with the relationship between individuals and the grand sweep of history.

Separating the main stories is a chart of dates, a “history of mediocrity, and futility, and human error”, to quote its unnamed compiler in one of his asides. The reasons behind this chronicle’s existence are revealed only gradually, as Shearman depicts a man who has been burnt by life, found that even the history he loved as a child now seems hollow, and he and his family have paid a heavy price. For this narrator, history has become nothing but “memories [and] interpretations”; a similar view is expressed by the protagonist of ‘A History of Broken Things’, who intersperses recollections of his past with reflections on his mother’s decline from dementia, whether history is nothing but our memories, and what that means if we forget or are forgotten.

One could take from this the view that individuals are insignificant in the face of history and loss, but that’s not the impression I gain from Everyone’s Just So So Special – at least, not entirely. It seems to me that individuals are central to many of these stories, even in some cases warping reality around themselves. For example, ‘Coming in to Land’ is presented as a flight attendant’s address to her passengers, insisting that they have to believe in Paris for it to be there when they land’; but it’s clear by story’s end that this is all about the attendant and her ex-lover. In ‘This Far, and No Further’, time literally stops from the strength of Polly’s desire to find her missing daughter – but there are a number of perceptual shifts which poignantly reveal her true state of mind.

Several other pieces in the collection also use a strange situation to illuminate character traits. The story ‘Dirt’ is a particularly striking example: Duncan Brown is a university lecturer having an affair with a student from another faculty, who calls herself Natasha and is obsessed with Russia (or her mental image of the place), and even keeps a bag of Russian soil under her pillow. Natasha’s fascination comes across as the rather eccentric fad of a teenager still shaping her own identity; it only takes the innocent action ofDuncansending her a postcard fromRussiato undermine what the country represents to her. But a neat narrative move at the end gives cause to question whether it’s Natasha or Duncan who has the more tenuous hold on reality.

One of the hallmarks of Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical for me was the way that Shearman often used the fantastic to facilitate equally satisfying literal and metaphorical readings of his stories. We can see a similar approach in some of the tales in the current volume. ‘Inkblots’, for example, quickly skates over the implausibility of there being such a thing as a “hospital tattooist” to produce a poignant reflection on declaring one’s feelings when they might change. Sam’s father and terminally-ill mother decide it’s time to get tattoos of each other’s names, and would like Sam to have one with both of their names; but he’s not keen on the permanence of a tattoo. Then Sam’s mother doesn’t die after all, and his parents drift apart; Shearman explores the ramifications of such a development in a situation where a tattoo effectively represents a declaration of undying love. In tandem with this, we see Sam’s own unease with the idea of love and commitment, represented by his squeamishness around tattoos.

However, it seems to me that the richest stories in Everyone’s Just So So Special go beyond straightforwardly metaphorical readings, into the deeper heart of fantasy. The protagonist of ‘Times Table’ literally sheds her skin with each new birthday, but the remains hang around as living puppets. The story portrays the protagonist at various stages in her life, from the fourteen-year-old girl taking her teenage insecurities out on the younger self who wasn’t the girl she now wishes she could have been; to the old, old woman surrounded by the ghosts of her past. To an extent, ‘Times Table’ is about who we are as people, and the changing nature of self; but the sheer range that it encompasses makes the story greater than the sum of its parts.

In ‘Restoration’, a figure known only as “the Curator” has conquered the universe, and each year of history is now a mural in his vast gallery. Andy gets a job at the gallery, and is particularly taken with both 1574 and his boss, Miriam – that’s the name she takes, anyway; she’s forgotten her own. And Miriam is not the forgetful one, as Andy too sometimes finds her slipping from his memory; but a new directive from the Curator forces the two of them to take drastic action. ‘Restoration’ is a slice of beautiful strangeness that works by remaining focused on the characters at its heart; even when the world we know has been utterly swept away, we can recognise the people.

So who actually is special, in the face of all that was, is, or might be? Perhaps the story ‘Acronyms’ offers a clue in its portraits of interlocking (though separate) lives, beginning with a café-owner who makes the finest BLT sandwich and heading towards an outlandish tale of spying. Everyone is special in their own stories, but those stories may be only tangential to each other. Shearman’s collection, however, certainly is special.

(This review also appears in issue 269 of Vector.)

Robert Shearman, ‘Alice Through the Plastic Sheet’ (2011)

Alan and Alice thought they knew their neighbours well enough, but discovered embarrassingly otherwise when they learned that Eric had been dead for months, and Barbara was moving out because she couldn’t cope with her feelings of loneliness. New neighbours duly moved in and, though the couple never saw them, they did hear the loud music coming from next door – and that was just the beginning. This unsettling piece features the matter-of-fact treatment of strangeness that Shearman does so well; Alan’s work life and relationship with Alice fray around the edges as the bizarre events proceed. The result is a story that really get’s under one’s skin.

Rating: ****

Robert Shearman’s website

Robert Shearman, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical (2009)

It has been around one -and-a-quarter years since I first heard of Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical, when it won the Edge Hill Readers’ Prize. I didn’t really know who Rob Shearman was (I’ve learned since that, amongst many other things, he wrote the episode of Doctor Who that introduced the Daleks to the revived series); but seeing him speak at the BSFA AGM later in 2010 only increased my interest in reading his work. Now I’ve finally done so, and more fool me for taking this long.

I’ve discovered that Shearman is a master of a kind of fantasy story I love, the sort that works equally well on the metaphorical and literal levels. The story ‘Luxembourg’ is a fine example: in it, the titular country disappears, leaving behind nothing but a water-filled hole; Juliet’s husband Colin was on a business trip there, and now she has to deal with his absence. It’s the little, mundane things that she notices:

She didn’t know how much food she should buy on the shopping run, and the DVD wasn’t nearly so much fun without Colin talking through the whole thing – she looked at the house, all newly cleaned, and wondered why she’d bothered. (p. 108)

As time goes on, Juliet falls for Colin’s brother Dave – but then Luxembourg reappears, and Colin with it. The events around Luxembourg become a very effective metaphor for exploring how one might react when a lover leaves a relationship.

But the story is also aesthetically satisfying when taken entirely at face value. What’s most striking from that viewpoint is how the characters treat the disappearance of Luxembourg as nothing too remarkable, as though such extraordinary events happen all the time; it’s reported on the British news as a quirky ‘and finally…’ story, and Juliet puts it out of her mind when she first hears about it (‘She supposed there was nothing to worry about. She supposed if there was something she ought to be doing, someone would soon tell her to do it,’ p. 106).

Time and again, the stories in Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical are like this: mundane, middle-class British settings; unremarkable characters with unremarkable names (if names are given at all) focusing on the everyday aspects of living and loving, yet taking the most remarkable occurrences in their stride. By giving his characters similar reactions to the fantastic and the domestic, Shearman is effectively granting the two equal dramatic weight, which may be why his tales balance so well.

But the characters’ inability (or refusal) to view the fantastic as extraordinary could also be read as not dealing with the reality of their situations, and that carries a note of horror along with the humour of incongruity. Take, for example, the story ‘Your Long, Loving Arms’, in which unemployed Steve gets a job working as a tree. It’s funny and absurd, yes – but then we watch Steve’s relationship disintegrate because he’s so wrapped up in his work; and we see how he gets treated by people when on duty – and there’s the horror of seeing these characters trapped in a situation which could be made better with only a simple (to us) shift of perception.

Though it’s possible to see a consistent approach running through many of the stories in this collection, there’s also considerable variety across the book as a whole; as the title suggests, explorations of love predominate. In ‘14.2’, for example, love is something that can be quantified precisely, which leads people to have a rather clinical view of relationships. In ‘One Last Love Song’, love is an inscrutable quality that the protagonist encapsulates perfectly in a song he writes as a child (which becomes one of the Government’s official  thousand registered love songs), a feat he struggles to repeat for the rest of his life. And in ‘This Creeping Thing’, love is… well:

For Susan, love was just something which crept up on her. There was no such thing as falling in love, falling simply wasn’t part of the process; the most Susan could manage would be an odd stumble every now and then… (p. 63)

The opening passage of that story is longer than I can reasonably quote here, but I think it’s a wonderful piece of prose and observation. Taken as a whole, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical is similarly insightful – not to mention an excellent set of stories.

Robert Shearman’s website
Video of Shearman reading ‘One Last Love Song’
Some other reviews of the book: Paul Raven for Strange Horizons; Valerie O’Riordan for Bookmunch.

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