Still Worlds Turning
edited by Emma Warnock
No Alibis Press
“The stories in Still Worlds Turning are fundamentally about inaction, about a reluctance to listen or to address conflict.”
The stories in Still Worlds Turning, an anthology of recent short fiction published by No Alibis Press, are subtly subversive in their architecture. Of the twenty stories, eight are in the third person, and about half are in the past tense; only two stories employ the standard combination of third person and past tense. Fiction that rejects convention is exciting, although in the case of this anthology, this speaks to something more disconcerting.
The third person and past tense are useful devices for conveying reflection. Whether or not a character understands their own actions isn’t always at issue, but the fact that they’re speaking from some point in the future prompts the reader to mull over their meaning for themselves. The present tense, on the other hand, leaves space for contingency, offering the reader a sense of ‘live-ness.’ It also presumes that the protagonist’s plight is interesting enough to merit the reader’s attention – that the character’s experiences perhaps point towards something universal. But if the experiences with which the stories in this anthology concern themselves are universal, we’re in trouble. The stories in Still Worlds Turning are fundamentally about inaction, about a reluctance to listen or to address conflict. In Ian Green’s “Highgate,” a character yearns for thoughtlessness and professes, “Everyone I know spends their time… finding methods to look at the world, to understand it. I don’t just want to understand it.”
Great stories ask questions about the world that produced them. Typically, they do so in one of two ways: either by having inquisitive, self-reflective characters, or by creating ironic distance. The stories in this collection eschew both of these approaches; they abjure critical thought and are disarmingly sincere. The stories stare at themselves in the mirror, refusing even to bother with the landscapes over their shoulders. The few standout stories that defy this rule are Wendy Erskine’s “NOTES FOR…,” in which ignoring an obvious truth is a survival mechanism; Daniel Hickey’s “The Longford Chronicle,” where a character’s account of his relationship with a failed politician disguises another narrative about personal failure; and Lucy Caldwell’s “Night Waking.”
In her introduction to the anthology, June Caldwell writes that as a student she sought stories “about [her] own experience of trundling through, what [she] failed to understand about life.” But shouldn’t we, as readers, want something more than to trundle through? Shouldn’t we take what we don’t understand about life and look it in the eye, ask why it’s so easy to screw up, wonder how we can do better? Many of the stories in this collection almost get there: they examine human failure, they note the ways we create chaos in our lives, but then they shrug and turn away. And though Caldwell asserts that short stories are fundamentally unsatisfying, I think they must still be unflinching, as only several of the pieces in this collection are.
Words: Sophie Stein