Attrib. is a rollercoaster ride of a collection, a heady mix of the astonishing with the meh.

opening remarks

I go from one debut collection to another this time Attrib. and other stories by Eley Williams longlisted for The Republic of Consciousnesses Prize.

knee-jerk observations

It would be underselling The Alphabet to say that it’s a first-person account of a woman suffering from aphasia.  The story’s subtitle gets to the heart of the matter: “or Love Letters or Writing Love Letters, Before I Forget How To Use Them or These Miserable Loops Look So Much Better On Paper Than In Practice”.  Aside from forgetting words and the letters of the alphabet, this is also a story about the end of a relationship.  Our protagonists interest in wordplay as her memories fade make it all the more tragic:

The title story Attrib. begins with a Foley artist growing increasingly distracted by the noises objects around her (a tree branch, a cat-flap, a doorknob) make while she works.  It then transforms into a feminist critique of how poorly Eve is depicted, as compared to that layabout Adam, in Michelangelo’s painting of her creation.  It leads to a number of very funny passages, including this perfect use of the word nipples:
Smote is quite an extraordinary piece of writing.  A woman desires to kiss her partner in front of a print by Bridget Riley.  What follows is a word salad of doubt, anxiety, an overriding concern that the attendant will intervene.  It makes sense, even if the sentences don’t always slot together.  Here’s a small excerpt, a taster or a much larger, surreal canvas:
Both Alight at the Next and Concision happen in an interstitial moment between one action and the next.  In the first story a man has barged onto the tube, stepping into the personal space of our protagonist who, in response, pushes her finger against his forehead.  In the second story, our protagonist is putting down the receiver of a phone because their partner has abruptly hung up.  In both cases, the protagonist, in that almost frozen moment, reflects on a relationship that’s either breaking up or is over. Williams tight focus is stifling and claustrophobic:
I think I’ve found my favourite story.  Fears and Confessions of an Ortolan Chef is also about a troubled relationship, but, unlike the previous stories, it’s clear what the problem is.  Our Chef can no longer deal with the guilt of what he does, that is kill and cook songbirds for consumption (a dish that is banned in France). His partner’s request that they only eat, watch and read banned or censored items reinforces that guilt.  Putting aside my ignorance (I didn’t know eating songbirds was a thing) this is a powerful piece of writing with a stonker of an opening paragraph:
On the surface Platform is a bit of whimsy questioning why anyone would wear a toupee.  If you scratch that surface it’s about someone dealing with the fact that they’ll never see their friend again, something they’re still struggling with 12 months later. The toupee is a distraction, a crutch our narrator rests heavily on so they can avoid the truth:
This short collection has taught me about the banned delicacy of eating Songbirds and now the use of rats to find landmines. Mischief is a lovely story – I’d almost go as far as to say it’s cute – about a trainer and his mine-detecting rat who, aside from working with bombs, also has great comedic timing, at least according to his trainer. The rat is described at one point as having the haunches of Hardy but the sighs of a Laurel.  I laughed.  It has also a great opening:

The Gist Of It

I found Eley Williams’ Attrib. to be a rollercoaster ride of quality, a mix of the astonishing with the meh.  Pieces like The Alphabet, Fears and Confession of an Ortolan Chef, Platform and Mischief surprised and captivated me with their wordplay, sense of humour and askew view of the world.  However, other pieces like Spins or Scutiform or Rosette or Bulk, of which the last two start well but fade, made little impression.  That’s OK though, these stories, all different in how they use language and structure, are narrative experiments and as such there’s always the chance of failure (although I bet it’s different across readers as to which stories don’t work). The thing is I’d rather read a collection where the writer has a genuine interest in what language can achieve, the shape of each word, the multiplicity of meaning even if in doing so some of the stories are overly tricksy or reflexive or pretentious.  In the hands of Eley Williams the English language feels vibrant, reinvigorated and different.