Is This The Way You Said?Publication date: 08/06/2006
These are stories about ordinary people at testing moments. In the title story, an expectant first-time novelist meets the publisher who has asked him to lunch, only to find himself drawn, unwittingly and inexorably, into a terrible personal tragedy. In 'The Concert Interval' Rob, an orchestral tympanist, sees his life crumble over the half-time coffee and sandwiches. In 'Heavy Shopping' a business executive is called in the middle of an important conference in Scotland with the news that his wife has given birth prematurely; his inability to cope with the resulting divided loyalties, and the way he deals with his own passive indecisiveness, reveals the terrifying emotional vacuum in his life.
These stories breathe life into their characters, exposing their deepest desires, their catastrophic fears, their perilous frailty in the face of the responsibilities they carry.
I like collecting snatches of conversations and weaving them into stories. I overheard the book's title in King's Lynn. The dullest of lives are fascinating – or can be made so if approached in the right way. I always try to offset the essential sadness with humour.
Toby Clements: June 2, 2007
"Gripping, dark, dangerous. Let's meet. Very soon.'' When Jonathan, a late-budding author, hears this from a publisher, he assumes that he is about to land a five-figure deal, but in this enjoyably savage satire of the publishing industry, fate has something else in store: soon he is having lunch with a lunatic intent on revenge. Adam Thorpe's collection of short stories is playful but exercises such tight control and changes the emotional register so adroitly that each might be a masterclass in the form. This is gripping, dark and dangerous, but also witty.
Nicholas Royle: August 2, 2006
Two excellent short story collections are around. One is Is This the Way You Said?, the latest collection by Adam Thorpe, a stalwart of Jonathan Cape, who have done their author proud with a handsome hardback.The other is a debut, 'Cages & Other Stories', by English teacher Andrew Michael Hurley. A slim paperback, Hurley's collection is published by Lime Tree Press at £6.97. Both volumes are full of welcome surprises and deft changes of tone. Both authors are strong on mood, dialogue and atmosphere.
Both tell strong, powerful stories that linger in the mind, that make you think and feel and fill you with wonder and dread. There's very little to choose between them. Yet one will do well, available in book chains and currently sales-ranked 5,919th on Amazon, while the other doesn't have an Amazon ranking and is unlikely to displace any of the 3-for-2 titles in Waterstone's, but you can buy it post-free direct from www.geocities.com/limetreepress/home.
Adam Thorpe was born in Paris and lives in France, but his portraits of Englishmen of a certain age, with their dithering and disappointment, their pomposity and petty-mindedness, are spot on. In the long title story, the depiction of the credulous first-time novelist tip-toeing in the shallows of the literary world is brilliantly done, likewise the evocation of the heat, dust and panic of the editor's Greek island idyll-turned-nightmare.
The strongest story is one of the shortest: in 'In the Author's Footsteps' a retiree irritates his wife by collecting decades-old walks books. His insistence on following former footpaths through industrial estates, shopping malls and private gardens could be a quirk that makes him a peculiarly English reactionary, or it could confer on him an odd but glorious heroism: a six-page masterpiece.
Murrough O'Brien: July 16, 2006
Beneath the song of the modern English poet you too often discern the simper of the modern Anglican parson: that "inner parson'' needs checking, not to say stamping on. Similarly, the modern short-story writer perhaps needs to conquer his or her inner Morrissey. The genre is not so much debased as deflated - wedded to the dying fall. In Is This The Way You Said? we see the perfection of deprecation, spurred by wit, watered by pity, fed by observation. It's marvellous, but you're left with a touch of wormwood on your tongue.
It's a book about men, but not great men, or even the Little Men batted about by the powerful, but small men - the ones who dream and yearn and compromise and stamp their foot when their compromises are pointed out to them. Thus, the self-esteem - professional and sexual - of a short timpanist in a provincial orchestra collapses in a hail of crumbs and turkey breast as his wife taunts him once too often. In 'Heavy Shopping', a "golden boy'' executive at a corporate gathering far from his pregnant wife is forced to concede that his wife's premature delivery might have had more to do with rough sex than with the heavy shopping she was carrying when the waters broke. When a genuinely successful man is introduced, he too tumbles into disillusion. A rambler follows the old paths across the fields, even though they now run through schoolrooms, offices, and eventually police stations. A disappointed poet finds a Latin text which he is convinced is an original work of prophetic genius, only to be informed by his translator that it's nothing but a grand pastiche. Women seem always in the right, though the reader, and the men, don't always know why: the answer is that this collection is saturated with the awareness of a vast historical debt.
Like all fine writers, Thorpe is ambidextrous: he uses cliché as deftly as original image. He is as easy in the unspeakably naff idiom of corporate jargon as in the soars and swoops of lyricism. Jack, sitting in the hospice, looks out at the leaves and wonders, "Why do those new leaves on the ash appear to be coaxing the air into them as they quiver or lie still?'' Sometimes the effect is gloriously bathetic: "a fat man in a shiny black coat, looking like a walking aubergine." Often beauty and banality conjoin. Thus Duncan imagines cowboys: "they'd lean out on the stoop and look out into the deep dark desert, the canyons and the wotsits and the secret watering holes and the tiny fires of the Indians."
The author does allow himself some curious tics. The way that everyone, of whatever class, slips in the addressee's first name in any conversational exchange struck me as distinctly 1950s. Arty types are almost formulaically precious and self-regarding. Conversely, names like Ivor, Saul, Tobias and Shelley argue a mite too much Murdoch in the author's reading.The darker stories, such as the one in which a man learns to distrust anything that gives him pleasure because pleasure awakens the gods "with their bleepers", are heartrending even while they're Gothic, but the last story, the title story, is pure Greek: a revenge tragedy whose bleakness is all the more horrible for being expressed in the most exquisite prose in the book. It's a book about men: not great men or little men, but small men
David Horspool: July 2, 2006
Adam Thorpe's second collection of short stories is projected on a smaller scale than his ambitious novels might lead us to expect. Where the novels, from his first, Ulverton, to his latest, The Rules of Perspective, have often dwelt on grand historical themes, the tales in Is This the Way You Said? tend to focus on more domestic dramas: a businessman is away when his daughter is born prematurely; a security consultant worries that he is not classy enough to live in the historic house he has bought; a classical percussionist endures the teasing of his girlfriend and her mates during an interval.
For an expatriate novelist and poet (Thorpe lives in France), evoking the day-to-day life of the British middle classes might be as formidable a challenge as inhabiting the thought processes of any number of historical characters. But Thorpe shows few signs that this doesn't come naturally. The soulless Scottish conference hotel in the story about the premature baby, for example, is convincingly evoked: "The Harcourt had a lot of ferns and Greek busts and lampshades and heavy dark-red curtains and fancy artsy pictures but no mirrors."
Thorpe is particularly good on the way modern surroundings seem to work against us; the lack of mirrors in the hotel won't allow the new father to see how he is coping with the news, and his own sense of self is too malformed to be of any use.In another story, the protagonist's whim is that he can ignore the modern world, and follow the walking routes laid down in old guidebooks. That story ends with our hero planning the "next hike with his old maps, his finger cutting cleanly across the slumbering hamlet of Heath Row". The implacability of environment is reflected in the frustrated lines of communication between characters: everything conspires to make connection impossible.
Not all the stories are similarly grounded. A ghost appears in a tale that meditates movingly on death and dying; more ludic, if ultimately rather darker, is the notion in 'The Problem' that an individual's appreciation of something dooms it to destruction. Where the surreal intrudes, it does so without flamboyance. The only false note in the collection is struck in the title story, which dissipates its own tragic tension by resolving itself in a melodrama that is no more effective for being self-conscious. More frequently, however, Is This the Way You Said? confirms that Thorpe is as accomplished at working by the inch as he is on the big canvas.
Alain de Botton: June 18, 2006
This summer I'm going to be reading some books (hopefully in the sunshine) at a cottage near Dundee, and I'm particularly looking forward to some short stories by Adam Thorpe called Is This The Way You Said? I read a review which said they were all about the tragi-comedy of personal relationships. For those of melancholic material, what better material.
John Burnside : June 10, 2006
Regardless of what television and airport fiction would have us believe, most of the problems that most of us face are fairly banal. The tedium of work, corporate bullying, personal and professional failure, sexual despair, age, illness and - perhaps the most poignant and most banal of all - "the woe that is in marriage". This should come as no surprise because, most of the time, we ourselves are the source of that banality: we think banal thoughts, we engage in banal conflicts, we plod through banal fantasies. As a character in one of these stories tells herself, we endure lives of "quiet desperation, as Pink Floyd had put it", but she never even begins to consider an alternative, instead playing "a lot of her ancient vinyl numbers" while her husband pores over old maps in the kitchen, all the time wondering "how she had ended up like this". Forget Thoreau's original context: for Adam Thorpe's painfully familiar characters, there is neither the space nor the opportunity to "live deep and suck out all the marrow of life"; rather, we are left with the impression that, when the people who haunt the pages of these exquisitely clear-sighted short stories come to die, they really will discover that they have not lived.
In other words, they are very much like us. They put on a brave face and console themselves with the trappings of middle-middle-class success - the better car, the listed cottage, the Tuscan holiday, a real or imagined esteem - all the while terrified that the illusion will fail, that their seeming luck, their marriages, achievements and financial stability will simply be taken away. In a story called 'Dead Bolt', for example, a security specialist called Duncan is clearing up after a charity concert he helped to organise. To begin with, he reassures himself: "The concert had been a success and everyone was high. Maybe the drinks after the concert had helped; there had been Kir Royale. . . The younger chaps all wanted beer or lager, and Nolan asked Duncan why he hadn't brought any along. Duncan had felt that beer or lager wasn't right after a classical music concert, but he didn't say this. He wasn't sure of his ground."
In fact, Duncan is a man very unsure of his ground. Dominated by his business partner, sexually frustrated, socially and intellectually insecure, he takes refuge not so much in his house as in the idea of it: a cottage called the Old Forge, "the oldest habitation in the village", an idea rather than a home, and one he begins to tire of almost as soon as he moves in. For the truth is that the cottage "wasn't them at all. Even the sloping floors were getting to him. Let alone the low beams. They had paid too much, stretched themselves, for something that wasn't them."
Yet, if Is This the Way You Said? is a brilliant series of observations of a whole range of menopausal, or pre- menopausal men, from the neurotic timpanist who finds himself derided by his wife, her best friend and a mediocre trumpeter, to the corporate punchbag browbeaten into staying at a conference instead of rushing home to be with his wife and their premature baby, it is the title story that stands out. Like Daphne du Maurier's 'Don't Look Now', its starting point is the death of a child by drowning, and, like that work, it is a narrative of bleak insight and poignant beauty. It is also, like its predecessors, a tale of disappointed, uncertain people searching for an authenticity that does not exist - a search that, in this case, leads to a double tragedy. Yet what raises both story and collection to the highest level is the combination of Thorpe's extraordinarily keen ear, sharp humour and a remarkable, direct prose that is not only suited to the way his people think, but also provides the perfect foil to those moments of tentative poetry that spark and burn from time to time in even the dullest of English lives.
Jerome de Groot: June 7, 2006
Adam Thorpe's new collection of short stories is assured. It's also insightful and shrewd about the minutiae of people's everyday inner lives. These tales are full of lonely people who are slightly bewildered by life and struggling to understand things. Opener 'Heavy Shopping' tells of a man alienated from his job and his wife but welcoming the birth of his daughter; the closing 'Is This The Way You Said?' deals with the drowning of a young child. Both are poised and thoughtful considerations of paternal emotion. The stories demonstrate an impressive formal and stylistic variety, moving with ease between different settings, time-frames and points of view.
There is a slight writerly self-consciousness at work: 'Bright Green Trainers' has a post-graduate working on an obscure poet; the central character of 'Karaoke' becomes obsessed with a poet whose work he finds by chance in a pub. These two stories attempt to capture the ethereal or cerebral essence of reading and writing, and they derive their poignant flavour from acknowledging that this is impossible.
In fact, add in the tragic publisher in the title story, various musicians and a man who attempts to walk routes described in books from the early twentieth century (regularly being arrested on the way) and the collection's keynote might be that art is no consolation for modern life.
Tom Adair: June 4, 2006
Doorstep novels and anorexic volumes of poetry are Thorpe's stock in trade, but here he demonstrates flashing prowess as a maker of crafted stories - as accomplished when set in Tuscany or Calcutta as on the byways of modern England. His heroes flounder or are obsessive; often they're diffident and assailed by the conditions of their lives, unable to rise or explain their motives. It makes for ruminative fiction: examined lives, everyday dilemmas. A vein of poetry frequently surfaces in images or attitudes: in 'Wanderlust' the hero plunges into the coldest of rivers, "the pain seeming to shock his lungs and turn them into frosty wings" - the reverse of Thorpe's method, which melts pain into tales that flutter and frequently fly.
Julia Flynn: June 4, 2006
Adam Thorpe is always good value, and although this collection of stories is uneven in quality it begins and ends with an absolute cracker. The title piece is a black comedy about a first-time novelist who has been invited to have lunch with a publisher in Soho. Ten years of labouring in obscurity, writing his magnum opus between stints of teaching in Brighton, have borne fruit. His novel, writes the publisher, is "gripping, dark and dangerous". But why does the publisher seem so distracted? And why does "lunch" consist of sitting in the lotus position in a dodgy Japanese restaurant while the chef prepares a rare puffer-fish dish which may or may not be poisonous? The answer is so grim that it will act as a deterrent to first-time novelists the world over.
"Heavy Shopping" is an even finer piece, unfurling at breakneck speed but achieving the emotional resonance of a full-length novel. Alan is attending a corporate "bonding" session in Stirling when his wife gives birth prematurely in Hull, having been rushed to hospital after collapsing in a shopping mall. His wife is all right, but his baby daughter is dangerously underweight and being kept in an incubator. Alan, naturally, wants to drive to the hospital immediately. Unfortunately, he is working for a company where the dimmest view is taken of such behaviour. Surely he can wait until after his keynote presentation the next morning?
As the hero dithers, and comes close to complete emotional collapse, Thorpe launches a savage broadside against corporate culture. The ghastliness of the humourless, cliché-spouting executives ("You must find your sea legs, Alan, and fix your eye on the horizon") is matched only by the tawdriness of the surroundings: a squeaky-clean hotel and conference centre featuring a replica Paris brasserie, a swimming-pool called the Cascade Club, and roads with a speed limit of 10 mph. It's a brilliantly conceived dystopia, the more scary for being so plausible.
None of the other stories in the collection achieve the same impact, although there are occasional flashes of inspiration. "Karaoke" is a wackily engaging tale about a book written in Latin. "Preserved" has fun at the expense of arty types in Tuscany. But the two main stories, framing the rest of the contents like fine mahogany book-ends, are good enough to justify the cover price.
John Harding: June 2, 2006
ADAM Thorpe's new short story collection is prefaced by a quotation from La Fontaine: 'Often you meet your destiny on the very path you took to avoid it', and many of the tales here illustrate the ironic tricks fate plays. A business executive at an important weekend conference in Scotland has to choose between risking the wrath of his boss by flying to the hospital bedside of his wife who has given birth prematurely, or staying put. He dithers and ends up with the worst of both worlds. When a 70-year-old gay choreographer seeks to recapture his youth by making a play for a young man, he ends up ageing faster. A fogeyish man loses his shoes on the beach, replaces them with bright green trainers, and begins life anew. In the title story, best of a very good bunch, a wannabe author invited to lunch by a publisher discovers that his manuscript is so powerful, it has destroyed the man's life. It's both a merciless satire on the publishing industry and a black comedy worthy of Roald Dahl. Thorpe's precise prose never wastes a word; he inhabits a variety of complex characters effortlessly and is extremely funny and moving by turns. A real treat.
Is This the Way You Said? appeared on a 29-strong longlist spanning four continents and containing eight UK writers, 10 Americans and five Irish alongside writers from Canada, Japan, Nigeria, Slovenia and Switzerland.
The Frank O'Connor prize, worth EUR35,000, is the biggest single paycheque for a collection of short stories published in English anywhere in the world. It was established in 2005 when Cork was a European capital of culture and was created to honour the city's most famous literary son.
According to Patrick Cotter of the Munster Literature Centre in Cork, the organisation that administers the prize, "It is the only award in the world specifically for a book of short stories and as such is essential in a landscape crowded with novel and poetry prizes."