Tachyon, 288 pages
Review: Iain Maloney
First off, a disclaimer. I’m a huge fan of Lauren Beukes. Zoo City was one of the most original and startling novels I’d read in years and the rest of her back catalogue, Moxyland, Broken Monsters and The Shining Girls were just as arresting and unique. She is a maestro of voices, combining an ear for how language shifts across invisible boundaries and how words include and exclude with a skill for rhythm reminiscent of the Beats at their jazz-influenced height. Her imagination takes the reader in unexpected and often terrifying directions but we go with her, comforted by the assurance of our guide. All of which makes the disappointment of Slipping all the sharper.
The sub-title on the cover should have been a warning. This isn’t a coherent themed collection of stories, rather it’s ‘Stories, Essays & Other Writing’. It immediately smacks of the ‘contractual obligation best of’ bands use to get out of punishing contracts, an anthology of odds and ends, scattered pieces that have nothing in common beyond authorship. When asked recently on the Guardian Books Podcast why she was bringing this collection out now, she said, “Because I don’t have a book out this year, so it’s a nice way to fill the gap.”
Any collection of Beukes’s work is welcome, and my criticism is aimed at the book as a coherent whole, rather than the individual pieces within. The writing, as ever, is of an exceptional standard and some of the stories are first rate. The title piece sits among the best things Beukes has ever written. It’s the moving story of a woman who loses her legs in an accident and is given the opportunity to compete in an olympics for technologically enhanced humans. With new legs, her organs replaced by cutting edge artificial ones that perform better than nature could manage, and a doctor remotely controlling her hormone levels, flooding her with adrenaline at just the right moment, she is ready to run the race of her life. It’s the kind of story science fiction was invented to tell, where speculative technology underwrites a timeless tale of hope and rebirth that otherwise couldn’t be realised.
However too many are middling. ‘Smileys’ is a replay of the ‘don’t underestimate the old woman’ trope, ‘Easy Touch’ is a standard revenge fantasy and ‘Litmash’ proves yet again that Twitter stories don’t work outside Twitter. The ideas behind these stories, the premises they are built on and the worlds they unfold are often wonderful, and Beukesian, it’s just that the end results don’t live up to their early promise.
The overwhelming feeling from much of the fiction pieces that make up the bulk of the book is one of a truly talented writer not trying very hard. I once started an argument about whether the novel was a superior art form to the short story. I did it mainly to stir up some trouble on Facebook but partly because I was curious if others had recognised the same trend I had. My point was that with writers who publish both novels and short story collections, their novels are always better. Across all genres, ages and eras, if you take any writer who does both – Ali Smith, James Joyce, Hillary Mantel, Isaac Asimov, George R R Martin – their novels will be stronger, deeper, better than their story collections. Raymond Chandler was a great short story writer, but it’s The Big Sleep that everyone recommends. Arthur C Clarke’s short story ‘The Sentinel’ lead to 2001: A Space Odyssey but if anyone asks where they should start with Clarke, I’d send them straight to Childhood’s End. Whether it’s because the forms are so fundamentally different that skills are non-transferrable or whether the novel is a black hole that sucks everything into it, meaning short stories are taken from whatever ideas didn’t fall over the event horizon, I don’t know. But I do know that in that whole thread no one could name someone whose short story collections were their best books.
Obviously this argument excludes writers like Katherine Mansfield who only wrote short stories, since there aren’t any novels with which to compare, and authors who never publish short story collections. It is not an argument that novels are a priori better than short stories, just that those who try their hands at both tend to be better at novels.
Now we can add Lauren Beukes to the list. Her place in the history of great literature is assured by her novels. Slipping is more of a footnote than a new chapter.