“A Perfect Universe“ is a collection of ten stories all set in California, yet not the Hollywood California of stars and success, but the part where life is a bit sadder and less full of hopes. It’s about a young man buried under a building which had crumbled, a business woman hated by the other clients in a coffee shop, a relationship which ended and does not provide solace anymore, a woman’s preparation for a big day which ends in a disappointment, a girl hearing voices, a class of men trying to control their emotions and others. Scott O’Connor provides a huge variety of topics, yet all taken right from life. His characters are not the rich and famous, not the especially talented or gifted. It’s the average boy and girl or their grown-up version.
As always in collections of stories, you like some more and others less. I cannot really say why this is the case, since it’s neither due to the topic nor the protagonist that I prefer some. The first one, “Hold On” got me immediately. The man waiting to be rescued, finding comfort and hope in the woman’s voice who is reading out their names, thus signalling them that they are not forgotten but searched for. His anger when the mayor decides to give up and the joy of surviving after all – you could easily feel the emotional rollercoaster Robert went through.
“Interstellar Space” also caught me, but this time there isn’t much hope, it’s a really melancholy story of schizophrenia. Her slowly deteriorating condition is sad to read. She seemed to be bright, joyful and lively and suddenly her mind decides to play tricks on her and have her finished in a hospital, locked-up in her body and the world outside shut out.
One which made me ruminate a bit was “The Plagiarist”. I often wonder if there can be indeed something completely new that can be written or if not rather all has already been said somehow. How can today’s works actually be “original”? There are some plot concepts that you can easily recognize, phrases that have been used again and again – so, what is invented and what is rather copied?
William Boyd’s collection of stories “The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth“ is not easy to review. As it often with such an assembly of very various texts, differing in length and topic, not connected in any way, you cannot pay them all the due respect in a review. The opening is great, I absolutely liked the the story about the art dealer and womanizer Ludo who immediately after having married one is looking for the next wife. The story about the thief did not really appeal to me, it was a mere enumeration without a real story, whereas the story of the freeing of the monkey had some deeper message. The longest and title providing story was the one about Bethany Mellmoth. Actually, I think it would have also made a good novel if extended a bit. Bethany is an interesting character and I think her make-up could have provided more to fill the pages of a whole book. In the last story, we even get a kind of short thriller which I also liked a lot. You sense that there is something odd about the woman and job for Dunbar, but it is hard to say what is wrong about it. William Boyd knows how to tell a story and he definitely is best in longer narrations such as the one about Bethany’s dreams.
One reoccurring topic in several stories is love, or rather: unfulfilled love. The characters are looking for the one person with whom they can spend the rest of their life, but they only encounter the ones who do not really match or who have mischievous plans. Or they themselves are actually unable to love and to be faithful. Loneliness can be found in many of them which gives the whole collection a kind of underlying melancholy.
All in all, there is something in every single story and a lot of wit in Boyd’s writing make reading the stories a great pleasure. In the narration of Bethany’s dreams he somehow sums at a point what life and the core of his stories are about, what he not only tries but masterly manages to portray:
Bethany is suspicious – this is not normal: everything seems to be going well and this is not how the world works – no. Life is a dysfunctioning system, she knows: failure, breakdown, disappointment, frustration – where are you hiding?
From Shirley Jackson, one of the masters of horror short stories, now comes a collection of seventeen stories. They are all in the tradition of the good old ghost story where you have the ostensibly ordinary people living a normal live until something strange happens. There is the old lady writing anonymous letters to trigger evil in her neighbours. A girl who tries to flee from her family, who can build a new and quite happy life and who thinks that it is her who has cut the thread with her parents. Or the strange elderly couple on a honeymoon whom everybody eyes suspiciously – there must be something wrong. The husband who only wants to get home to his loving wife just like the woman who hates the public bus drivers and wants to complain about them even before boarding the bus. Or Anne, the plain student who moves unobserved and could never do any harm – couldn’t she?
Although we have rather short stories which do not shed a light on the characters’ past and which do not have complicated plots, it is great fun to read. What all the stories have in common is the unexpected turning point. We have a quick rise in suspense until something unforeseen happens and we change our mind – either in how we judge the character whom we have followed over a couple of pages or about the context in which the story seems to have taken place. A lot of surprises and what I found especially striking is the fact that the stories are all different. You do not have a kind of parallel that you can recognize, no obvious repetitions in the structure or characters.
All in all, a collection perfect for winter evenings for lovers of classic short stories.