10 June 2014

The Short Review ~ "Thought-provoking" - Jumble Tales

"I can’t predict future events. Neither can I pick race-winners nor National Lottery numbers alas. That would be easy money and I would have made my pile years ago. I don’t believe anyone actually can do those things. Ironically I’ve never believed in all that hocus-pocus nonsense. It’s all just tricks. What I can do is pick up the predominant thoughts of a person standing in front of me. Mine is an inherent ability, a science, and a human skill that so far only a few of us have learned how to use."

Reviewed by A J Kirby

In his introduction to Jumble Tales, Steve Morris writes, "Life is a gamble in itself and perhaps sometimes, too much of one. Its course of events is continually being determined by what is in effect, the equivalent of a series of dive throws, unpredictable to all but Lady Luck herself. The difference between fortune and misfortune often is as finely balanced and as simple as that". These stories, he writes "examine life’s possibilities, if not highly probable ones."

And this statement informs many of the stories in this, Morris’s second collection. Unashamedly, these are stories with twists, in the best traditions of the short fiction of Roald Dahl and Paul Jennings, and the movies of Alfred Hitchcock (and initially those of M. Night Shyamalan before he started believing his own hype.) They are stories which are inclined to rear up and bite the reader on the bum, tales which become almost moral fables at times, fictions which delight in confounding our expectations. And, as is the nature of such things, there are some twists that work, and some that don’t. There are some which the writer telegraphs and some which delight and astound us as readers. In the words of Chubby Checker, "Come on let’s twist again like we did last summer (…) Yea, let’s twist again, twistin’ time is here."

The twist, as a literary device, seems to me a careful balancing act which the author must tread in order that the plot does not outweigh the character. In order that the stories do not become all about the twist and not about what came before it. Hollywood went through a phase of twist movies so that eventually, the twist itself became clichéd. And then, in fiction, there is the dreaded "it was all a dream" ending, an authorial sleight of hand which generally tends to do little more than piss off the reader who has invested so much time and energy in getting through the story to that point. Morris, thankfully, always stands on the right side of this line, and never resorts to any cheap magician’s trickery. 

Which is not to say that plot does not always take over. Around about half of this collection are plot rather than character driven stories. The agent of change in the protagonist’s life tends to be a moment of serendipity, such as the lottery win in the disappointing February, rather than any inner desire in them to overcome a problem. And, unsurprisingly, in a twist I saw coming, it is the stories which do not rely so heavily on Deus ex machina which work most effectively.

One-Nil, for example is a wonderful character study of a journeyman footballer forced to contend with the derision of the crowd. A crowd which, due to the level of football he now finds himself in, is so small he can even pick out individual voices. One particular voice haunts his every game, questions his every touch and mocks his ability, almost becoming an interior monologue of doubt. "I swear it was the same old sod every single week. I know it was the same bloke in the first half who’d shouted, ‘I’d let you kick me. I would… I bloody would. ‘Cause you wouldn’t bloody hurt me, you wouldn’t.’ (…) Just why do mad old sods like him always have the loudest mouths in the crowd?”"

And although it takes a positional change from a new manager, moving him from centre forward to centre back, to draw the player out of his slough of despond, Morris also makes us see that his up-turn in form is partly due to his own determination to overcome the voice from the crowd. It is rare to read a piece of sports fiction which is as well drawn as this story, and Morris’s experience as a footballer has clearly informed the piece. In this case, writing what he knows has paid off. The story is a cracking volley into the roof of the net when all seems lost.
 

"I twisted my back. Never taking my eye off the thing it landed beautifully. Exactly dead centre of my right toes and keeping it as low as possible, I swear I have never hit a ball so sweetly in my life. I can still remember the noise it made as it smacked from my boot leather. Thirty-four yards. It thundered in so hard, that if that Prima Donna keeper of theirs had got his over-paid hands on the ball, it would have taken him in with it."

Roy of the Rovers stuff then, but still grounded in reality. Indeed so real does Morris make the story that I could almost smell the liniment oil from the changing rooms, hear the shouts from the crowd and feel the ball coursing into the net.

Another one of Morris’s menagerie which is grounded in his own experience is Just One Big Game. Morris’s biography informs us he is a teacher of maths and science, and his pen portrait of Hayden, the autistic maths genius protagonist in this piece is astutely drawn. "Hayden had been selected for his role due to his downright prodigious mathematical talents. You don’t just learn skills like those in any university. That was something you were born with. He was simply one in a billion and I am glad he was on our side."

Hayden’s role: "We were relying on this young man sat with his headphones on in front of his strategically symmetrical supper to simultaneously close down all phone lines, mobile communications, satellite communications and radio signals of an entire continent."

The twist, which I won’t spoil, is excellent here, and also very funny, as is the case in Achilles, in which Morris takes aim at some popular targets. This is the story of a man who works for a sinister agency which "exposes" high profile politicians by digging into their backgrounds and discovering their phobias, their skeletons (and there are plenty of them). Literally "each one had an Achilles heel" which the agency can get at. Lock up your daughters also works well.

But by far the most interesting story in the whole collection is Like a bad penny, and for this alone, the collection is worth reading. And it has one of the most gripping openings to a story I’ve read in a long time, an opening which makes the reader sit up and take notice far more than any of the twists. The setting, a laboratory. Two scientists have found a match in two strands of DNA only, the strands are from people: "… born four hundred years apart."

This is Michael Crichton territory, science-thriller territory, and it is clear that it is in this field Morris is at his strongest and most creative. I’d like to see more stories from him which start like this, rather than ones which rely on their endings to form a coherent whole. Whilst I enjoyed this collection, I can’t help but think I’d have been more engaged had I not read every piece in the expectation that everything was going to change at the end.



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