A new short prose anthology from Scottish indie publisher The Common Breath, The Middle Of A Sentence tackles the staring chasms ever-present in modern western society in beautiful, evergreen and shape-shifting ways.
Edition Published by: The Common Breath, 2020
The debate between the power of the novel as compared to short fiction is ages old. How can one build a world as illustrious as Daphne Du Maurier’s Cornwall, or as vivid as Khaled Khalifa’s Syria, with less than a few thousand words?
It’s a view that Brian Hamill, literary standard bearer, mastermind behind The Common Breath and editor of The Middle of A Sentence admits to holding previously in his introduction. It wasn’t until reading Carol Joyce Oates’ 1988 collection The Assignation that he realised:
‘… stories of such brevity did not have to rely purely on arch humour or abrupt non-sequitur for their effect, but could provide a truly great depth of characterisation and emotion also.’
That sense of world-building is easily achievable via short prose, and The Middle Of A Sentence proves it. And the myriad angles, traumas and societal commentaries that the anthology offers each react to our reality and speedily convey an alternative one, where normality and anguish become whatever the reader makes them.
I’ve attempted to sum up some – and by no means all – of the ways in this review.
Lockdown As A Mirror
If the short prose format offers a unique opportunity for experimentation, then it makes perfect sense for it to react to zeitgeist crises. As open-ended as many of these stories might be, they can at least be viewed as lockdown adjacent. Essentially, they take mundanity and run with it, but allow it to become as lucid and bizarre as any imagination might do when confined to the same four walls, 24 hours a day.
This is apparent from early on, with Jenni Fagan’s The Ship exploring notions of compassion and stagnancy in gripping, hallucinogenic style. Sometimes the assertions are direct: ‘it’s been going on for months’, ruminations on failing to get dressed, hand sanitiser and dancing words all proving weirdly relatable. But in the end, it’s only caring for somebody else that unfries our protagonist’s brain.
Fagan’s work with various vulnerable groups as well as female prisoners places her neatly and astutely at the epicentre of much of Scotland’s literary genetic make-up. The endearing desire to give something back to society on an everyman level has always existed in Scottish literature, and The Ship uses that Irvine Welsh-ian angle of weirdness as underpinning communal spirit.
There’s a pervasive sense of some of these stories being reactions to *our* reactions to lockdown, too. Take Donna McLean’s Signal, for instance. Technology – and in particular social media – is so nefariously dominant in our hands and lives these days that it’s impossible to ignore this story’s evergreen assertions. Indeed, its sinister suspense hints at a far larger imbalance, in both technology and gender relations. Its ending is multi-faceted:
‘Signal. Where all our secrets disappear’.
But I found it especially cloying given how inescapable it makes technology seem. When your only route to public expression is via social media, some people’s secrets are – often rightly – impossible to mask. Signal eradicates the distance between a user and what they might post on social media. During lockdown, when even the tiniest senses of self-obsession need a release, many people have seemed to deny themselves the choice in looking for worth online.
Similarly, the magnification of what are often everyday concerns feel totally consuming when viewed in an isolated reality. These moments don’t so much represent the abyss gazing back at you as they do make the abyss take on a multitude of different, distinctly tangible shapes. The loneliness in Kevin Williamson’s Ponderous Stuff could reflect sibling rivalry as much as either communal consciousness or struggling romance:
‘Scared of being together. Scared of being alone’.
Examples of what might have previously been written-off as absurdist hilarity now seem weirdly believable. Stewart Home’s A Hypno Kink Princess is the epitome of this, using masculinity and its commodification of sex as a step ladder to domestic embarrassment that’s probably far more widespread than many people would care to admit. Shortly afterwards, Howard Colyer’s two-line Ready embodies the same sense of losing oneself to nothingness in brilliant, beautiful style.
It also takes on far more poignant shades. The ebb and flow between stark reality and hallucinogenic mindfulness in Wayne Conolly’s quietly heart-breaking Blood Cancer seems to be as much a complete disconnection from self as it is searching for meaning and solace.
And while Stuart Murray’s How Ye Keepin Anyway is ostensibly a play on the fairly obvious notion that isolation might lead to alcoholism, its simplicity also connotes another inescapable truism: addictions might seem easy to avoid, but they’re far easier to succumb to.
How informed by lockdown any of the stories are, I’m not sure. But that’s another secret beauty to open-ended storytelling. If people see a version of themselves that has only been prevalent for the last year in these stories, then that can only be a connector. The slew of lockdown novels, albums and films has already permeated to a kind of tiresome extent, but short prose’s advantage – only having a finite time to convey anything – conversely makes them more everlasting than you might expect.
Racial Prejudice and Anti-Imperialist Sentiment
Unfortunately, oftentimes these days it seems that society’s reaction to trauma is contained by brevity. It’s a sentiment encapsulated brutally and distressingly by rapper Killer Mike in the Run The Jewels song ‘Walking In The Snow’ from last year:
‘The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy
But truly the travesty, you’ve been robbed of your empathy’.
How revitalising it is, then, that the myriad variations on short prose in The Middle Of A Sentence prove that brevity doesn’t have to be a shallow pit. In fact, in the hands of these writers that sense of having very little time to say something massive is melded into beautiful, if bleak, forms.
A large part of that bleakness is confronting societal ills that exist around us all the time, and that here in Britain we’re depressingly adapted to ignoring. Whether dealing with toxic masculinity, race or sexual abuse, at their most powerful the stories here make you feel queasily uncomfortable.
Rachael Fulton’s Blood is one devastating example. Whilst ‘shock factor’ is a terminally overused phrase, when Blood appears in the sequencing here it’s like a sucker punch to all the ribs at once. The seething putrescence of the mindset depicted, the hatred and embedded culture of peer pressure are all recognisably commonplace in Britain today. But again, its domesticity and vulnerability of the protagonist are its calling card; it forces society’s cracks open and a patriarchal, toxic, largely right-leaning society to gawp at itself.
Admittedly, for those of us on the left it’s pretty much preaching to the choir. With political entrenchment so thorough as it is now, showing Blood to an EDL member might not change anything. But it also calls us on the left to account for allowing this to happen. Nowhere near enough has been done about the growing far-right presence, and to some extent it has festered so much because we’ve let it.
It’s crucial to view these injustices from a non-white lens too, of course, and the anthology delivers on that front too. In Two Happy Meals, Nigerian writer Chiga Unigwe channels the paranoia of emigrating to a society (in this case the US) where the totally unwelcoming infrastructure is embodied by that most over-arching symbol of western consumerism: McDonald’s. In a sense it’s about desperately trying to be a part of something that doesn’t want you. But also – as the awful denouement contends – it’s about the realisation that maybe it was ever thus. The palpable sense of distrust she feels is inarguable in the most evidence-based way.
Ranbir Sidhu’s That Here They Call Castles offers the same distrust but in a UK environment, and almost more earthy sense in his description of ‘Ealing sidewalks’ as being wonky, ‘as if the builders were drunk or ever searching for that which was never in front of them’. It gets more direct as it goes on:
‘No one smiles here, it is a land colonized by a single expression, the lips flat, tight, they eyes unmoving’.
Sidhu’s castles, or ‘dungeons’ that are the ‘ill-lit living rooms’ become a reproach to everything that symbolises English comfort. As we know, what’s comfortable to the wealthy barely masks the societal superiority complex that pervades it. In a way, Sidhu’s perspective as an outsider looking in is the ultimate advantage; it offers the British what they cannot see for themselves, and with far more cultural sensitivity than many of us could dream of. And yet there’s no mollycoddling; British comfort allows nothing for anybody else.
Masculinity, Class & Looking Inwards
Let me be clear: it’s important, to me, not to give any credence to the ‘war on men’ narrative. And that seems to be one aim of The Middle Of A Sentence too. In fact, pretty much all portrayals of masculinity here are steeped in suitably soul-searching pathos. Given the events of the last two weeks particularly, that feels right.
And besides, literature has had enough of definitively masculine perceptions. In a society where individual dominance is still valued above any sense of equitable outcome, portrayals of masculinity like those here cannot come often enough.
There are many examples, not least Brian Hamill’s hilarious self-deprecation. On the surface, both The Marriage That Was Ended By Rice and The fucking pest control are about the breakdown of a relationship. But there’s also a massive helping of self-denial. In the former its paramount. When his parents confront him about his part in the break-up, he shoves them off:
‘But it was. I know it was. If I’d never said that about the rice, that moment would never have presented itself’.
In the latter, it unfurls more slowly. Unhealthy drinking habits and an unwillingness for confrontation gradually conspire to create an undoing that he recognises full well, but will do literally anything to keep unacknowledged, except in fleeting moments: ‘I should say her name’.
Garry Cox’s Jesus Christ, 6 Days Short Of His 53rd Birthday rolls down the same road but simultaneously takes on more cultural, communal male inadequacies. It gets back on the absurdist bike, making the divine and unreachable hilarious and not so unfathomable after all; ‘Buddhism is the only religion he feels he might someday commit to’, he writes, before he’s enlightened by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and becomes consumed by trying to reduce his Union Credit.
It’s almost as though our narrator, just like Christ himself, accepts his lot; he does what he has to do. But it also suggests that Christ is just a hyper-extension of man, probably invented by someone looking for some higher presence. And isn’t that what all of us – and maybe especially middle-aged men – are trying to do in life?
But just as masculinity needs to be considered and deconstructed societally, so too must we look inwards to injustices in class and health. Julie Rea’s The First To Leave is one of the most ferocious examples, tackling personal displacement which ends in tragedy inadvertently created by the protagonist. Seemingly set within the framework of a care system, we learn that a lady has ‘a garden full of scrap metal and garbage, and she’d been given 30 days to clear it’. When our protagonist arrives ‘one stifling afternoon with a rusty lawnmower’, one wonders whether it’s an allegory for the decimation of the NHS.
Graeme Armstrong’s Landit is also ultimately about a failed state:
‘C***s like him never last, the madness that fills them takes them n they perish’.
There’s a terrible sense of potential avoidance, exasperated and undone by the notion that middle-class carers can never truly understand working-class desperations. The drug epidemic that throttled working class communities across Scotland will permeate for as long as austerity works to view those communities as unequal.
Recovery From Trauma And abuse
A crucial element to men looking inwards is amplifying female voices, and accepting their perspectives without taking anything personally. There’s always been room for that in literature, but the sense that literary standards have been too male for too long is still hard to escape.
Frequently, that sense of a system which automatically devalues the work of women is felt acutely. Though this anthology was published in late 2020, they take on an extra urgent tone in a world where women aren’t safe even from people whose job it is to protect them.
That’s done in various ways. Kirsten Andersen’s The Space Between uses cavernous blanks and formatting discombobulation to relay perceptions of bodily and sexual autonomy, a break-up, freedom of choice, recovery from trauma, suicide and the extent to which – in a patriarchy – self-determination can achieve anything.
Ultimately, more and more we seem to exist in a world where ‘she believed she could, so she did’ seems a maxim hard to grasp, and that’s reflected in its repetition and consistent isolation on the pages. Self-determination for women is easy to out as a lie, it seems.
Farah Ahamed’s Thin Air shames us even more. It’s prescient just now that – like all great examples of brevity – you might read it and consider Ahamed some sort of seer. But this is the way things have always been. There’s no sense of futurism or foreshadowing here; this is how life has always been for women.
Sarah Ward’s The Bridge is fascinatingly bleak, excavating the cruel effect both demonisation of femininity and toxic masculinity can have on women. There’s also a sense that it reflects the collapse of society, and how this country – which is amped up to be a hive of equality-based modernity – offers nothing to young women in particularly.
And Hattie Atkins’ Food And Wine replicates a heightened sense of emptiness and desperation in a setting we can all recognise. By re-defining a constantly changing activity – cooking – to be something regimented in tandem with enormous personal loss again reflects the cyclical and constant unease many women live with.
Language And Meaning
There are several spell-binding approaches to language and dialect in The Middle Of A Sentence which, if you’ve been following The Common Breath’s catalogue & online activity, will come as no surprise.
Landit offers language as another essential arm of its assertions of class. Literature written in Scottish dialect has often been a target for sneering (mostly English) middle classes, either dismissed as being ‘too hard to read’, or fetishized as a composite glimpse into working-class Scotland. Graeme Armstrong changes the dynamic of that perception dramatically. Given that it’s a piece of memoir, it’s strikingly direct, but there is a sense of distance between the narration and the subject. Scottish dialect, here, is not so much an embodiment of class as it is deeply entrenched, rising out of a divide that, ultimately, snobbery has created.
That new spin offers Landit a unique position as a purveyor of the impact of words when reformed to fit certain perspectives. Bernard McLaverty reforms the idea of a sentence itself in The Fountain Pen, in so doing proving its liquidous endlessness and all the time keeping tabs on self-expression. Essentially, the anthology ends on a rumination on what the actual point of words is, or more specifically, saying too much or not enough. And both sides of that coin are explored in other examples too.
Sherwood Anderson’s The Dumb Man – one of several examples of short prose from the late 19th/early 20th century – is an exercise in literal non-storytelling. It creates a deeply cinematic, vivid narrative out of what isn’t said. To me, it seems ostensibly about how love is the cure for death. But via sardonic humour, Anderson suggests that words might be over-powerful in the context of love and death, even unwarranted:
‘Why was I not given words? Why am I dumb?
I have a wonderful story to tell but no way of telling it.’
It’s a viewpoint rebuffed by Kirsten Anderson in The Space Between, and one paragraph in particular:
‘Chaos often lives here, in the space between
words and feelings.
Thriving on the manufactured masochism of being misunderstood.
Again and again we try to be understood.
Yet we ask each other to read between our lines.
Why offer up spaces instead of words?
People are ridiculous’.
How much Anderson believes that is unclear; indeed, she offers a different perspective in the following paragraph. But either way, it’s a testament to the power of each and every person’s voice, whereas Sherwood Anderson might argue that there are too many voices in the crowd. The Space Between excavates the dynamics in both words and spaces, challenging the idea that the human condition can be neatly pocketed by interpersonal relationships, and should be more clearly defined by individual thought.
It felt quite resonant to be reading The Middle Of A Sentence in the same week that the new Arab Strap LP came out. Aidan Moffat’s writing has always belonged in the same lineage as that of James Kelman or Alan Warner – both of whom feature here – and seems tied up in many of the same, bleak machinations in navigating 2021 society.
What Moffat and many of these writers share is the ability to eek reality out of absurdity. The distinction is in the sense of fun in Arab Strap’s music, and the sense of wariness in many of these stories. But no matter what you take from The Middle Of A Sentence, the glaring sensitive accuracy throughout the whole anthology is incredible. It’s genuinely very rare for every story in a collection of this kind to strike a chord with me, but each one did, in spades.
You can buy The Middle Of A Sentence here.