Wednesday 7 June 2017

Speak Gigantular

(May 2017)

This is an intriguing if slightly uneven short story collection set largely (but not exclusively) in London, but with enough fantastical elements that I was tempted to pitch a review to Strange Horizons. Ultimately, however, I’m not sure I’m capable of crafting a suitably insightful path through these stories, so you’ll just have to settle for some disjointed observations here instead. You’ll live.

Observation #1
The overriding theme of this book is loneliness, often tinged with alienation and anger. The protagonists of these stories live lives at one remove from the rest of the society, and while in some cases this is through choice, it’s rarely presented as a positive. In Footer it’s taken so far as to be anthropomorphized (or whatever the equivalent of that is for an animal):

Loneliness moved towards the large living room window as she read. Wagging its tail, it watched the jagged light filtering through. She threw an empty bottle of Moscato at it. It dodged, surprisingly deft, then shrank back and chewed on bits of broken glass. It was its second meal of the day.

Which leads us to…

Observation #2
There are lots of often quite hard jumps between metaphor and mimesis. If you were casting about for a generic pigeonhole for Speak Gigantular then the most obvious one might be magical realism. For me, however, one of the overriding features of MR is its sense of liminality, of the real and unreal blurring and bleeding into each other, and Okojie switches from reality to metaphor to fully embodied fantasy in a way that’s frequently quite jarring. The transitions often occur without warning and the sense is not so much of blurring but of crashing, of crunching through the gears with a heavy foot on the clutch. When it works it’s actually quite thrilling, it picks up speed and momentum very quickly, but as often as not it ends up with everything stalling. That being so, you could make a decent (if puckish) case for filing this under Urban Fantasy, instead.

Observation #3
Most of the protagonists are women (or at least seemingly female), and many have sisters who figure large in their lives. This is most clearly manifested in Fractures, in which a waitress is anonymously wooed by one by one of her customers. She decides to take the plunge and meet up, only for this to dredge up disturbing memories for her and her twin sister and reignite their sibling rivalry. The ending comes out of nowhere, and takes us fully into the realms of science fiction.

Observation #4
Endings in general are not a strong point. A few too many stories build, carry you along, and just as interest peaks you’ll get a final concluding paragraph that seems to have been hastily bolted on at the last. Outtakes, for example, is an otherwise effective story about modern relationships and making do which, just as it looks to have run its course, is abruptly and literally driven off a cliff. I throw this information out lightly here because knowing how this story ends spoils it no more than the ending itself. The best stories seem happy just to exist on their own, little slices of the/a world confident enough in their own selves not to need much in the way of narrative anchoring, but the cut-n’-shunt nature of many of the conclusions comes to feel like an unwarranted lack of confidence, a desire to hew to narrative convention when no hewing is necessary.

Observation #5
All that being said, there are some very good stories here. Highlights include: Gunk, the opening tale, in which an overbearing to the point of abusive mother tries to toughen up her son to better face the world. Animal Parts, isn’t particularly original, but is nonetheless a very well executed fairy tale reworking, in which a single mother struggles to raise her betailed son in rural Denmark in the face of community suspicion and resentment. Walk with Sleep, meanwhile, is a ghost story set in the tube that manages to be both bleak and touching. It’s not a coincidence, I think, that the stories I felt worked best are the ones which were most fully committed to a specific genre. Whether that says more about me or the book I’ll leave for you to decide.

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