Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine by Diane Williams: CB Editions, 2016 – Republic of Consciousness Prize Short List*
Despite the almost impossible brevity of each of these stories, it’s taken me a long time to read Diane Williams’ Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine partly due to my hesitation to start writing this review. The stories are unsettling. An endorsement on the back cover tells us that ‘The uncanny has met its ideal delivery system’; another states that Williams’ work is ‘not for first reading but for periodic immersions in a world perfectly real but strange’. Both of these statements encapsulate the strange otherness of these stories and their ability to bring us closer to ourselves through the oblique lens of familiar estrangement. But perhaps neither explicitly addresses the thing I personally found most troubling.
‘She had been lucky in love as she understood it. And that night – some progress to report. Something exciting afoot. She has a quarter hour more to live.’
For me, the upper-class voice and vocabulary created a character with whom I found it difficult to empathise and identify. I found the tone of Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond similarly problematic to assimilate. Both Williams and Bennett have created collections of discomfiting short stories with unsettlingly aloof upper-middle class narrators whose narration resists empathy and affect almost entirely. Williams, with her sharp and caustic brevity and her focus on an accumulation of unrelated episodes within a single ‘story’ seems to have perfected the style.
As a prolific reader, I’m used to fictions that engender empathy and identification with, and assimilation of, the narrator’s character as part of the unconscious process of reading that I’ve been practising since childhood. But Williams’ characters and narrators in this collection are not designed to be empathised with – they present disconcerting everyday experiences with which we might identify, in a way that’s designed to be distant and aloof, a way that prevents our easy assimilation of another life as our own and holds us at an uncomfortable distance. This is not a fiction that we can consume in colonial fashion, incorporating its riches as we gorge ourselves on the text. It holds us off, and that’s an unsettling experience in narrative fiction.
At the same time, the stories open us out onto ourselves. Asking us to sit with that twingeing irritation that Virginia Woolf described as located impossibly between the shoulder blades in An Unwritten Novel. Showing us the things that we find most troubling because we know they’re also part of ourselves but we can’t quite convince ourselves to acknowledge them, let alone reach through to alleviate them. So they sit there, troubling: resisting both assimilation and alleviation, just being there as a patch of rough and broken skin at the edges of our consciousness.
‘In a luncheonette that I took cover in, I overheard, “Yes, I do mind …” – this, while I was raising and re-arranging memories of many people’s personal details, tryst locales, endearments – faces, genitalia, like Jimmy T’s, or Lee’s, which I pine for.’
It’s a consummate skill to be able to produce this sort of resistance in a reader, when every literary convention dictates empathy and identification.
As global and national politics becomes increasingly defined by grotesque hyperbole and empty excess, literature is demonstrating its razor-edged potential for the subversive through its movement towards the understatement. Even Williams’ idiosyncratic crisp, upper-class vocabulary feels essential here: language like this enables us to explore thoughts of increasing subtlety and complexity, and to risk losing that suddenly feels chilling beyond measure.
The Poet‘She carves with a sharply scalloped steel blade, makes slices across the top of a long, broad loaf of yeasted bread for the dog who begs and there’s a cat there, too.She holds the loaf against her breast and presses it up under her chin. But this is no violin! Won’t she sever her head?’
About the Publisher:
CB editions publishes short fiction, poetry, translations and other work which, as the Guardian noted, ‘might otherwise fall through the cracks between the big publishers’.
Review by Sally-Shakti Willow
Sally-Shakti Willow is researching for a practice-based PhD in utopian poetics and experimental writing at the University of Westminster, where she also works as research assistant for the Contemporary Small Press. Sally’s poetry is included in the #NousSommesParis anthology from Eyewear Books; the experimental collection The Unfinished Dream by Sally-Shakti Willow and Joe Evans was published by Sad Press in October 2016. @willowwriting
*The Contemporary Small Press is celebrating the first ever Republic of Consciousness Prize for small presses by reviewing a range of titles from the long- and short-lists throughout early 2017. The Republic of Consciousness Prize was established by writer Neil Griffiths to support and reward adventurous new fiction published by small presses in the UK and Ireland. The judges have selected some of the most exciting and innovative new fiction to highlight through their long- and short-lists, demonstrating the breadth and depth of high-quality literary fiction currently being published by small and independent presses. The winner will be announced at an award-ceremony held in conjunction with the Contemporary Small Press at the University of Westminster in March.