The Danger of Short Stories

I’m not really a fan of the short story format: or so I thought.  As it transpires, I don’t know me very well – a fact which seems to be brought to my attention increasingly frequently as the days practise their merry dance across my ageing bones.  I am starting to think that my self-image was preserved in aspic some time in the 1990s and is badly in need of an update (very much the antithesis of the approach taken by Java).

My self-image is far from the only item of frequently changing data which has been subject to premature ossification in what passes for my memory.  The price of beer is forever frozen at 99p per pint (pace Joey Holts as once served in The Blue Bell in Moston) and a price as high as £2.50 is viewed as excessive and only to be entertained by the over-paid fools resident in London.  Sadly, the price of petrol is similarly fixed as 44.9p per litre – based on a price once paid at a petrol station lying somewhere between Sharpthorne and Lewes.  As a consequence, purchasing either liquid in 2015 is a painful experience for the author – though evidence would suggest he is better able to overcome the trauma of purchasing the former than the latter.

Whilst we seem to be digressing into the area of traumatic pricing (don’t you love the way I effortlessly implicate you in this digression?), it as at this time of year that I most miss living in Sawston.  In those heady days, I would gorge myself on a huge variety (and quantity) of plums purchased for significantly less than £2 per kilo from Cam Valley Orchards.  This week just gone, it was only by some shopping around that I manage to achieve a price of £4 per kilo.  I cannot say that the quality of the plums improves at this higher price (and the range on offer is vastly diminished), but what you lose on these desirable swings you make up in the unwanted roundabouts of added plastic packaging.  Anyway, I’m starting to sound like a curmudgeon even to myself, so let’s segue back to the main thrust of the post.

Recently, the short story has been worming its way into my life: but I thought I could control the habit.  In the case of All the Rage by A L Kennedy, each story – short though many were – was so rich that the temptation to immediately start on another was relatively easy to control.  In this, the experience was not unlike reading poetry – which has also begun to creep through the interstices of existence into my life – where each poem (unless of a relatively trivial or comic type) needs time for digestion before the next is consumed.  However, this last week I started (and finished) The Beat Goes On by Ian Rankin: the complete Rebus short stories.  These were huge fun and the writing is excellent, but they also proved very more-ish – it was very hard to just read one (or indeed two).  I suppose at least they are not directly fattening: ‘a moment before the eyes, a lifetime on the thighs’ is not yet a common coinage among the portly reading community.

Sometimes with a full size novel, reading on can prove a rather daunting prospect: one may lack the emotional strength or endurance to face what is coming next.  There may be several hundred pages left to travel and so little hope of a swift resolution – and it can be dangerous to attempt sleep while there are important lexical matters “to be continued” (but equally ill-advised to try and finish the book, especially should an early start be needed).  With a short story, you are never more than a few tens of pages from a conclusion – and so a resolution can be guaranteed before the head must make serious contact with the pillow.  This is how their insidious charms work, of course: there is always time (or so I can convince myself) for just another quickie – and then the whole afternoon (and/or evening) has been frittered away to little constructive effect.

I suppose I should come clean and admit that it is not only the short story that has this effect on me.  Carlos Ruiz Zafón seems to have discovered a similar trick and so The Prisoner of Heaven didn’t last long – perhaps fortunately, he takes a goodly while to produce new work and I have now consumed the full back catalogue (so I – and my afternoons – should be safe for a while).  However, now I find Alice Roberts taking his place with The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being yielding so much fascinating material that it is proving hard to ignore: still that is science, so counts as a slightly more productive use of time to the weird, internal temporal accounting system which retains some influence over my activities.

Anyway, I just hope by ‘coming out’ about my short story habit, I can save others from descending the same slippery slope: just say ‘No’, people.

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