ShiftsPublication date: 04/01/00
Shifts takes as its premise the fact that what we do has a bearing on what we are, that work is what defines and shapes us. The twelve stories here are all first-person narratives, and range widely in time and place: from the memories of an English bin-man to an Australian mason struggling for employment in France, from the tribulations of a Ghanaian immigrant in 1960s London to sawmill workers in post-independence Congo. The cant and argot of the workplace seep into the vocabulary and metaphorical reach of the protagonists.
This is not just a series of exercises in ventriloquism: Thorpe, ever aware of the social contexts beyond the localised perspectives of the individual, illuminates issues of racism and class, the legacy of war and imperialism, the relationships between men and women, and how the facts of work affect partners and families, through the tensions and releases of what people choose or are forced to do for a living. This, however, is never at the expense of good storytelling or the human dramas of everyday life - the tales are by turns poignant and witty, tragic and epiphanic, always revelatory of the complex humanity that lies behind each social facade.
The world of work fascinates me: I had done many of the jobs that feature in this collection – including the dustman's, which is probably the only essential job I've ever had. I wrote the stories over many years. One of the stories, 'Tyres', is an English Language AS-level set text.
John Burnside: January 8, 2000
In spite of the fact that the world of publishing has been, or is in the process of being, taken over by the kind of marketing mentality that long ago established itself as the business norm, substituting "presentation" for substance and hype for quality, there are still two distinct types of literary event. On the one hand, there are the well-publicised books with which our shops are currently piled high: confections related to the millennium; those now all-too-familiar volumes constructed around the random jottings, recipes or garden designs of some minor celebrity; or colourful reissues of televised classics, (one looks forward to the day when the actual text of a Dickens or a Henry James novel is discreetly altered, to create a better match with the broadcast version). On the other hand, there are the quieter, more personal highlights for which each of us watches and waits with the patience of the true aficionado.
In my own case, one such highlight in the publishing year is any new book by Adam Thorpe, whether it be poetry, a novel or, in the case of Shifts, and for the first time, a volume of short stories.Adam Thorpe began his writing career as a poet, then moved, after two acutely observant and lyrical collections (Mornings in the Baltic and Meeting Montaigne) to fiction, making his debut with what can only be described as a modern masterpiece. Ulverton was a virtuoso work, a meditation upon the process by which we record, or construct history; it was also a lyrical and profoundly beautiful piece of writing about landscape, or what some archaeologists call "workscape", reflecting the ways in which human beings interact with, and are informed by, the land in which they dwell. This was followed by two very different and highly original novels; first, the genuinely comic, provocatively modernist, Still; then Pieces of Light, in which Thorpe returned, by way of Africa, to Ulverton, finding the spiritual and psychological links between the seemingly distant worlds of rural England and "darkest" Africa at their most fundamental level. As if the production of these three extraordinary novels were not enough, Thorpe also published, just last year, what was perhaps his best collection of poetry to date, the tenderly lyrical and intellectually engaging From the Neanderthal.
In a time and place in which specialisation seems to be the norm, such diverse gifts are occasionally viewed with suspicion, or even hostility. The British tend to like their artists to stick to what they are supposed to do, and not stray into other areas; there is also a woeful tendency to look to a writer for more of the same - the product, as it were, or brand name, that can be relied upon to push the right buttons, and deliver the expected results. This being the case, there seems to be a challenge at the heart of Thorpe's work, a demand that we continually move on, that we make no assumptions, that we ask more from ourselves than mere consumerism. As if to emphasise this approach, Shifts is entirely different in almost every respect to its predecessors. A series of short stories, told simply and directly in the first person, with plain one-word titles, such as 'Stonework' or 'Tyres', the book examines the nature of work and the relationship of the worker to his or her materials and function in locations as diverse as France, Africa and Australia.
Often, the apparently simple, occasionally rambling and, in some cases, almost abrupt manner of these narratives suggest the kind of account that might come out of an oral history session, as in the opening story, in which a former binman remembers a disturbing incident involving an empty house, a rubbish bin and some home-made pornography, or 'Iron', where a German woman, haunted by her wartime childhood, considers the ways in which our lives are governed by the laws of chance, or the profoundly disturbing, yet oddly moving 'Sawmill', which in many ways is reminiscent of Heart of Darkness in its framing of the central narrative, and its exploration of the way in which the manager of a timber cutting operation, nicknamed "Pa Croc" by the locals, goes native. This being Thorpe, however, there is a shift at the end of the story which reveals something new about the relationship between white colonist and native ideas of sacrifice and propitiation.
As the title suggests, these stories are all about shifts: about those changes in perception or circumstance, sometimes small, often more dramatic, which change our lives, from war to family feud to the sudden and occasionally mystifying revelation that reveals a man as more complex, and a little darker, than he had thought. Not only the variety of locations and voices, but also the imaginative breadth and integrity of these stories, suggest that Thorpe, who has spent time in Africa and the Far East, and who now lives in France, has the kind of range and intelligence typical of what is best in European writing - intellectual curiosity, wit, lyricism and an agnostic, yet profound, compassion. If you make one resolution this year, make it an easy one: ignore the piles of millennial and other product piled high on the main tables of your local bookstore, go straight to the fiction shelves, and buy this book. It's worth it.
Daniel Johnson: 22 Jan 2000
THE SHORT story is often treated as a poor relation of the novel, rather as drawing and engraving are less esteemed than painting. In the case of Adam Thorpe, however, the story is evidently an organic part of his oeuvre.
Shifts, his first collection, is no less virtuosic than the three novels with which he established a reputation for experimental brilliance in the 1990s. But here Thorpe has acquired an ease and fluency occasionally lacking in the novels.
The elegant simplicity of his stories results from a decade of refinement. It is as if James Joyce had published Dubliners after, rather than before, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Moreover, Thorpe has never abandoned poetry and has published three volumes of verse. It shows in his prose.
The collection consists of a dozen pieces, thematically and stylistically linked. All are about or arise from various kinds of work; all are written in the first person. Work, for Thorpe, is not just a matter of occupation, but of occupational hazards. His characters often come to sticky ends in not-so-accidental industrial accidents.
In 'Bodywork' a car obsessive dies mysteriously; in 'Sawmill' a Conradian figure sacrifices his arm to appease an African tree god; in 'Iron' a woman is crippled while sitting on the wrought-iron seat her husband has forged for her.
Other protagonists are enslaved or deformed by their professions. In 'Business' a saleswoman is determined to build on the family farm one of the swimming pools she sells, despite her sister's dying wish to preserve the home intact; in 'Bins' a dustman recalls his tragicomic career; while the hero of 'Debauchery' is a Parisian ragpicker.
The uncompromising Thorpe, now in his early forties, fled the corruptions of the 1980s London literary scene to live in a French farmhouse. He is hardly provincial, though: his tales are set in wartime or postwar France and Germany, in Australia and Africa, or among Asian and African immigrants in Britain.
Thorpe is fascinated by craftsmanship. His narrators dwell lovingly on their materials or métiers. And it is for his uncanny ability to mimic not merely their accents, vocabulary and tone, but also their thought processes that this collection is outstanding.
Adam Piette: January 10, 2000
Adam Thorpe has a playwright's gift for voices. Ulverton revealed this with its brilliant mimicry of historical registers, its care for local language and landscape, its bitter elegiac passion for the voices and crafts of the past. Still, though far too long, displayed an uncanny vocal range too, with its mix of grimly empty postmodern chic and painstaking recreation of Edwardian tonalities. Pieces of Light showed what a fine memory Thorpe has for voice, as he fished in his childhood past in Cameroon for the old tales he'd been told by the Africans. Shifts is more than a collection of short stories - it is a fine demonstration of this power to shift from voice to voice.
Thorpe has been careful not to publish merely a series of disconnected tales. All the stories in Shifts share the same topic: work. We get the mason's tale, the glass worker's tale, the mechanic's tale ... Thorpe is examining exactly how far individuals are locked into ideology and culture through the work they do.
His ecological belief has him concentrate particularly on the industries that most remorselessly destroy pastoral-human value in the world. The businessmen who ruin Ulverton are satirised again, this time in the guise of a swimming-pool saleswoman shown cruelly mangling the family farm in order to spite her "green" sister's dying wishes. A traveller with old-fashioned mason's skills is ripped off in entrepreneurial France and made to do breeze blocks. A young Asian boy is maimed physically and psychologically by his job in a neon factory.
More interesting than these rather soap-boxy ecological parables are the work stories which dwell on stranger and more fearful forms of complicity.
Thorpe has lived in France for 10 years now, and is clearly concerned to explore the darker side to Europe: 'Tyres' is about the costs of doing business in occupied France, the extraordinary 'Iron' looks hard at the ordinary Germans who tacitly followed Hitler.
There are structural threads running through the tales too, alongside the shared theme of work and complicity in a dark world: in each we get an unreliable narrator reflecting on some victim of whatever system the work involves. So we get a nasty rep being unctuous about his dead mechanic brother in 'Bodywork', but revealing murderous impulses at every slip of the tongue. A blowsy girlfriend enthuses about her partner's skills in making model boats, but harsh tones of triumph colour her tale of his decline into alcoholism. These tales are brilliant exercises in dramatic monologue, more Bennett than Browning.
More intriguing are the narrators who don't even begin to understand the stories they are telling, like the bin-man who is taunted with visions of pornography in a house with a dark mirror-window, or the callow American who encounters a bizarre tramp in existential Paris, or the sawyer who tells the tale of a sawmill manager who goes to the limits of primitive bloodletting.
Thorpe is very good at these fantastic tales, seriously crossing the psycho-cultural with the supernatural.
But the triumphs of this collection have nothing to do with ecology, work, ideology, unreliability.
What Thorpe is good at, what only he at the moment can do in "millennial" English writing (that's how it'll be known, I'm afraid), is worm his way into the voices of people that are just outside the range of our complacent ease with the world.
He makes us feel, as we read, that these very different people, whether they be bin-men, masons, car-mechanics or slick businessmen, are mysteries to themselves, but more importantly, mysteries, still, despite the best of our smug interpretations, to us.
James Urquhart: January 9, 2000
Shifts, Adam Thorpe's first collection of short stories, ends with the hardbitten monologue 'Rigging', in which a woman describes her sailor-husband, and his crafting of model ships with fingers reconstructed in three years of surgery after a workplace accident. His cheerily masked alcoholism, her stoic regret of breast cancer gradually unfurl from Thorpe's taut, economical prose in a meditation of unexpected intensity. Its subject and mordant tone evoked for me the bitter harmonies of Elvis Costello's classic ballad 'Shipbuilding', which of course isn't about building ships at all, but presents a powerful metaphor of crushed opportunity and loss. 'Rigging' isn't really about rigging; but because of his industrial injury, the invalid sailor simply cannot hook the intricate ropework onto his model ship.
Thorpe has used the motif of an individual's work or metier to explore its consequences on the lives of that person and those around them. Each of the dozen stories in Shifts uses the nature of work (or the lack of it) as a springboard. The title and longest story follows a Ghanaian's search for work amidst the institutionalised racism of post-war London. Linda and Doug, none-too-bright Australian stonemasons (but not sneered at by Thorpe), scrape by on the Mediterranean coast in 'Stonework'; in 'Business' Estelle, a luxury pool saleswoman, ignores the deathbed wish of her sister and sells the family farm in the hills above Montpellier to a developer wanting a pool.
These very different narratives all exhibit Thorpe's most striking quality as a writer: his consummate skill at holding distinctive voices. His previous novels and poetry have proved him highly capable of moulding language into many dialects and manners, and his precision as a wordsmith leaves nothing to pare away from this collection of pungent characters. Be they boy, wife, Pakistani factory worker or German blacksmith, Thorpe's narrators are convincing, consistent and diverse. But although the sketches are varied, the springboard of work adds extra coherence to the collection as a whole. In many respects, Thorpe's superb first novel Ulverton was a sequence of short stories in which geography (the village of Ulverton) provided a linear theme and the era and character would change with each subsequent chapter. Shifts retains the subject of work as a lateral theme where the subject remains similar - employment's purchase on the minutiae of people's lives - and the locations and contexts differ. As with Ulverton, the collected tales add up to more than the sum of their parts.
Besides 'Rigging', Shifts contains a generous handful of outstanding stories, the best of them, again, being monologues. The opening 'Bins' is a delightful glimpse of a former dustman, now a reluctant, un-PC 'refuse vehicle' manager. The smilingly ironic 'Bodywork' reveals an effete shelving salesman's thoughts on the suicidal tendencies of his family. 'Sawmill', deep in colonial Central Africa, crackles with a raw, Conradian edge of uncivilised fear. Set against the austerity and latent violence of occupied France, 'Tyres' cautiously maps the incremental progress of tyre-mender Raoul's infatuation with a pretty cyclist who is working for the Resistance. But in Adam Thorpe's hands, even shifts as mundane as a tyre mechanic's resound with the authentic joys and pains of vital, private lives.