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Old friends: two new books by Chaz Brenchley [Dec. 7th, 2014|10:30 pm]

This isn't a review. Fortunately, it doesn't need to be. If you want reviews, the New York Times Book Review called Being Small a "lovely short novel" Publishers' Weekly called Bitter Waters a "clever and subtle collection". But this isn't a review, it's something else.

Mostly I don't have any qualms about reviewing books by friends: the usual disclaimer (desperance is a friend, and anyway I love his writing) and we're good to go. The problem here is that not only is the author an old friend, but the books are too: I remember Chaz reading from Being Small, long, long ago at Durham Literature Festival the year they decided to adopt a horror theme and had to be nagged into including a panel on horror as a genre... Bitter Waters the collection is brand new, but the short stories in it have been selected from a lifetime's work to date, and there are memories attatched to many of them: Up the Airy Mountain reduced me to tears in the Bodega, reading it hot off the printer while Chaz caught up with some other task; I first heard Another Chart of the Silences read by its author in the library in which its opening scenes take place (though not, perish the thought, in the Silence Room itself!)...

julesjones makes the same point (in a post about Being Small which I bookmarked a while ago, and had completely forgotten began, as this one does, "This isn't a review" - and for the same reasons):
There's a two for one offer. And I knew before it was stated what that two for one offer was for, and what the boys would do with it. My blood ran cold, not because of anything in the book, but because of the ore that scene was smelted from. A handful of words Chaz has written here and there, and some of them too damn close to home for me.

Mine is more prosaic. There is another scene where one of those boys is introduced to Indian food in a restaurant which the narrative explicitly situates in Oxford: "The main course came with a separate table added at the end of the booth, solely to support the biggest naan I'd ever seen." I have eaten that naan - or rather, like Michael, I have been one of a threesome which utterly failed to eat that naan, but in a restaurant in Newcastle. This is what writers do: they make stuff up. But they make it up out of the stuff which is already in their heads, and there is a particular pleasure for the reader in tracing the ways in which they do it - or there is if the writer is worth the trouble, and it goes without saying that Chaz is.

This is showing off, I admit it, and that's most of the reason why this isn't a review. Reading Being Small saw me through a transatlantic flight, and if some of the pleasure it gave me came from recognition and reminiscence, some of it came from the irresistible narrative voice. And the ending still packed a punch.

Chaz Brenchley is an exceptional writer of short stories. A short story collection from him is not just something to tide us over until the next novel is published, but a major event in its own right. First-time editor klwilliams has done a heroic job of selecting and arranging the stories for what publisher Lethe Press describes as "his first short story collection devoted to gay readers". Someone said that you should review the book the author wrote, not the book you wish they'd written, and it's sound advice, though not as easy to follow as you'd think. Harder still when you're double-guessing not the author but the editor, and all the stories are there, and you lay them out like a pack of cards and rearrange them mentally. Another Chart of the Silences is a strong opening, but I had my doubts about the choice of Villainelle to close the collection: it quite deliberately leaves a bitter taste, which is fine but not what I want to take away with me. So what would I have put last? This is a parlour game, not a book review (but we've already been through that) ao I'll say Parting Shots, tonight at least. Ask me again tomorrow.

I was glad that I knew something about the background of the stories. There's a world of difference between Junk Male and The Boat of Not Belonging, though both concern an older man, his boat, his business and his youthful crew, and both present a mystery to be solved: it helps to know that the first was originally published as crime fiction, the second as a ghost story. Several of the stories here were written for Phantoms at the Phil (and some of these have previously been published only in that form, that is, read aloud by the author to an audience); two are set in the worlds of, and concern characters from, full-length fantasy novels; 'Tis Pity He's Ashore was written for Hellbound Hearts, an anthology of tales inspired by the motifs of Clive Barker's horror, and shows the marks of it, though not as strongly as it shows the marks of Chaz'z own private mythology, in the recurring character of Sailor Martin...

You don't, of course, need editorial assistance to spot that there are two groups of stories here linked by recurring characters. Sailor Martin navigates the oceans (and the equally stormy seaports) from the oldest of these stories to some of the newest, from the macabre to the almost playful. Quin is more consistent, the character reappearing with the same situation, some of the same emotional tone: the stories are not repetitive, but they dip again and again into the same well of material, the Matter of Quin. Both Bitter Waters and Being Small are haunted by the same story, the lived experience, the literary novel which never quite got written. I would have loved to read that novel, but there is something rather wonderful about this patchwork of glimpses, a plot outline here, a fragment of meditation there (Yes, Septicaemia, I am looking at you. Call yourself a story? Just be thankful I don't use the p-word).

And then there are the ghost stories. Chaz Brenchley writes a damn fine ghost story. Some of his ghosts are horrific, some of them are tragic, none of them are conventional: there's no floaty drapery or clanking chains. They insert themselves into the mundane world (one of these days I will write a monograph on 'the haunted bathroom in the works of Chaz Brenchley', and I am somewhat spooked by the way Elizabeth Leggett's cover art seems to have anticipated this). In one of my favourite stories, The Insolence of Candles against the Light's Dying, the narrator is asked, "Do you believe in ghosts?" He replies "I believe in being haunted." Chaz will make you believe in it too.

[User Picture]From: julesjones
2014-12-07 11:08 pm (UTC)
I still have not found a way to properly review Being Small. Every time I try, I stumble over the fact that I cannot read it in the way that someone new to Chaz and his work would. And so am still not entirely sure how real Small is, and in what way. Read it through a litfic glass, and you get one answer. Read it through a fantasy glass, you get another. And a third seen through a horror glass darkly, and since when has Chaz ever stuck strictly to one genre, even within one tale?
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[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2014-12-08 12:35 pm (UTC)
One reason why my book posts tend not to be reviews, even when I don't know the author, is that I so often want to talk about the ending - and, oh, yes, that goes double for Being Small!

It could so easily be straight lit.fic., couldn't it? Though I like the ambiguity, that the ending makes you reassess the story you have been told, and leaves you unsure.
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[User Picture]From: klwilliams
2014-12-08 02:18 am (UTC)
I must admit that the final order was due to Steve Berman, primarily because I had been erroneously told by the author that Steve wouldn't let me put the Quin and Sailor Martin stories together. However, I do like "Villanelle" at the end, because it adds a hint of devilment to the good-bye.

Thanks for the good words. I think Chaz did a wonderful job with the stories.
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[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2014-12-08 12:40 pm (UTC)
How interesting that one of the reasons I wasn't convinced about ending with Villainelle is precisely the reason you do like it! I love being able to discuss this kind of thing.

I have a question for you, but I'll do that by e-mail...
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[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2014-12-08 12:45 pm (UTC)

Re: 'the haunted bathroom in the works of Chaz Brenchley'

I'm glad this is readable, even for someone who doesn't know the books or the author. I recommend him, seriously. (And I'm not in any of the books, as far as I know.)

The p-word: Chaz'z prose is often described as poetic, but this is discouraged. We maintain that it is no compliment to prose to describe it as being like not-prose. We do not admit the superiority of poetry. We are Proud to be Prose... and so on.
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