Wednesday 28 October 2009

'the dark and rotting heart of the earth'

An A-Z Of Possible Worlds
by A.C. Tillyer

I am going to have to face the fact that at the moment I am a bona fide commuter. For the last few weeks certainly the regularity of my journey into town has placed me next to men in suits tapping away on laptops, power dressed women alternating the application of make-up with Blackberry scrolling and countless people with their faces buried in either one of the Twilight books or the latest Dan Brown. Now don't get me wrong, I love a journey into work, it provides me with at least half an hour of dedicated reading time, but appropriate reading matter can be more problematic. Hauling Bolano's 2666 around for a few weeks was enough to cause serious injury and as John Self commented after finishing Mantell's Wolf Hall "that's a weight off my lap". A combination of that commuter curiosity and a yearning for small digestible narrative lead A C Tillyer to write one of the more intriguing publications I have come across this year: a beautifully produced box containing 26 individually bound stories, one for each letter of the alphabet - from The Archipelago to Zero-Gravity Zone - which come together to make a book difficult to summarise; a journey through the sub-conscious, an insight into what makes us human, brief flashes of insight that may alter the way you look at your journey and the people you share it with for good.

Tillyer manages to recall some of the big names in literature with some of her stories. C is for Casino had me thinking of Borges with its description of a life lottery, D is for Dormitory Town is a Swiftian satire with a Chief Justice who is cared for as a baby whilst his work is willingly done by servants around him and K is for Kingdom is a chilling horror tale worthy of Poe. But these aren't just homages to other writers. Taken as a whole there is a surprising political and philosophical thrust to the stories which tackles notions of power, control and authority. E is for Excavation makes archaeology a political act and demonstrates the importance of resistance to absolute authority. In N is for Neutral State the state in question has become a specialist in torture, used by the warring states that surround it. Sometimes the political\battleground is more personal. I is for Inn could be said to show the malign influence of alcohol on society and in P is for Peep Show Tillyer creates first a strip club popular with its clientele because each female dancer has some form of deformity and then sees how far they would be prepared to watch a woman go. A story both shocking and provocative in a way that strip clubs no longer are.

U is for Underground is one of the most entertaining and unsettling tales, especially for a denizen of the tube like me. In that space where people famously keep themselves to themselves, almost making an effort to avoid any kind of contact with their fellow passengers Tillyer places a breed of vampiric hunters who use that anonymity to disguise their hunting of human prey. They first monitor, then stalk the most ordinary of people (usually men) before surrounding and then driving them away from busy platforms (the rest of the travellers completely unaware with their heads down or buried) to be devoured in secret, the remains carried out in everyday bags and pulverised to make feed for the border plants in their suburban gardens. Looking up from reading a story like that can lend a curious expression to your face as you scan your fellow commuters.

With the booklet format you could select a few to take on your journey each day, each story taking between 5 and 15 minutes to read or if you don't mind some inquisitive (and envious) glances you can carry the entire box with you and dip in as you see fit. The collection is published by Roast Books, an independent publisher which seeks to publish new and interesting fiction in formats which tally with our modern lives. What that means for many I suppose is short books which fit easily into what you carry with you each day; unlike those literary doorstoppers in other words. Each of Tillyer's stories may be slight in size but it would be a mistake to underestimate their themes or ambition and the powerful effect they have as a whole. This review is part of the A-Z blog tour on which the next stop will be author Charles Lambert's 'A place for everything that doesn't fit anywhere else' on Nov 2nd.


Andy 28 October 2009 at 10:40  

Hi William

An excellent review and I agree that each small booklet packs a mighty punch and gets you thinking about their themes and your relation to them.



Anonymous,  2 November 2009 at 15:28  

I don't remember the name, but I remember a project very similar to this, in which the chapters weren't ordered. The book comes in a box with lots of little booklets, each one being a chapter, and you are supposed to read them in any order you want.

William Rycroft 3 November 2009 at 00:00  

Thanks for the positive comment Andy, I see that you've not only reviewed the book but interviewed the author on your own blog, good work!

Intrigued by the book you mention Ronak. I once read something similar in an edition of McSweeney's a few years back. Robert Coover wrote a story called Heart Suit which came in the form of oversized playing cards, thirteen in total, which could be read in any order. Very innovative.

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