Book Review: Attrib. and other stories by Eley Williams

Influx, 2017

Short stories | Independent publishing

Attrib. and other stories is an ode to language and humanity. It's a collection of 17 experimental short stories that might better be described as situations or ideas. These are situations that we don't usually find in literature yet they are hugely recognisable and quotidian: like the story Alight at the Next about a character who presses their finger against the forehead of a commuter who tries to get onto the tube before our protagonist has gotten off (we've all been there; it's infuriating) or the one about a character noticing a funny instance captured in the background of a photo they took: in this instance, a toupée being blown off in the wind (Platform).

Other situations are bizarre - like the conversation amongst an assortment of characters gathered around a beached whale in the story Bulk - and some situations are those that are beyond our usual consciousness. For example, the stories The Alphabet and Synaesthete, Would Like To Meet are based on medical conditions I didn't know about (aphasia and synaesthesia) and there are stories about jobs I never thought about such as foley artist (the person who creates sounds effects) and the disturbing role of ortolan chef.

Even when Williams ventures into the unusual, her characters responses, actions and thoughts remain recognisable, understandable, human. Williams achieves this not by writing archetypes or cliché but by exposing her characters' most intimate and weird thoughts, their paranoias and their mind's wanderings.

The gender, names and identities of the stories' protagonists are largely unspecified, particularly in the stories told through first person narration, of which there are many, amongst stories addressed to an unidentified 'you'. This lack of specification works well; I've always found character descriptions unnecessary as the reader will conjure a character in their mind from just a few details. But this also works to represent and speak to marginalised people. These stories don't assume white protagonists and heterosexual couples as much literature does. Attrib. doesn't universalise people or experiences but it does lovingly present universal aspects of humanity and emotion such as lost love and feelings of inadequacy. And there's a quirky romance to many of the stories.

The best thing, however, is the way in which each story's themes literally pervade the text.

Language, action, character, plot and title are interconnected. These stories contain the shapes, sounds, colours and impressions of words and letters. In the story The Alphabet, about aphasia and the gradual loss of language, Williams describes the shape of each letter and is somehow spot on every time: "An empty workman's clamp: G ... K is the point of an arrow smacking into a trunk, while L is a candle-holder where the flame has been snuffed out." Smote (or When I Find I Cannot Kiss You In Front Of A Print By Bridget Riley) is a myriad of subtle images of black and white things, mirroring Riley's black and white artwork.

It's Williams's incredibly intelligent, creative and tender use of detail and language that make this collection exciting. Some of the stories are more memorable than others - which ones you'll enjoy most will be a matter of personal taste - though it's easy to appreciate the skill and creativity of each one.


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