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Everything You Need by Michael Marshall Smith

December 10, 2013 Leave a comment

Everything You Need

Everything You Need by Michael Marshall Smith (Earthling Publications, 2013) is an outstanding collection of seventeen stories, six of which are original to this limited edition volume plus authorial insights into the process of writing them. It’s one of the best single author collections I’ve read in 2013.

“This Is Now” is one of these stories that deliberately tantalises and passes on. The set-up establishes a curiosity bump. Why should the military set up an electrified perimeter fence just outside this fairly obscure town. It’s just woodlands. And, of course, young adults with time on their hands, have every incentive to test the current at regular intervals along the fence. After all, if there should ever be a chance, they would always want to see what the fence is so keen to protect. Changing tone, “Unbelief” is a very elegant story about a contract killer. After a while, the professional goes about his business by a set routine. The job comes in, he completes it with his usual high standard of care, and receives payment without delay from another satisfied customer. Life with his family is comfortable. The question, of course, is whether this serene lifestyle can continue indefinitely or might there be a proverbial worm in the apple to disturb his appetite for more work. “Walking Wounded” grows out of P P Arnold’s hit “The First Cut Is the Deepest”. When a relationship gets into difficulties, there are several ways in which the partners can hurt themselves or each other. In some fantasy stories, the voodoo doll might come into play. In others, people would just feel cut up by the whole experience. If this happens, it leaves the problem of how the healing process is to be triggered.

Michael Marshall Smith

Michael Marshall Smith

“The Seventeenth Kind” is a wonderful shaggy dog story. For those of you not into British idioms, this is a longish tale that rambles all over the planet, with digressions and parenthetical wanderings thrown in to entertain us en route until we arrive at the revelation of what thing has seventeen kinds and the payoff which should always be delivered with a knowing smirk. Please forgive the divagation from the norm, but once I start a one-hour disquisition, I keep going no matter what happens. “A Place For Everything” is for those who agonise over the way to shelve books. Should it be alphabetical by author and then by title? Well, for those who prefer apple-pie order in their surroundings, here comes a cautionary tale of the ranking order in any given room from a mote of dust upwards in the hierarchy of importance. “The Last Barbecue” wonders whether the gourmet zombie, given the choice, would prefer a beefburger, lovingly grilled with special sauce, or a surviving human in a lakeside resort. The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. “The Stuff That Goes On In Their Heads” deals with the unexplored continent that is the mind of a six-year-old. Just how seriously should you take the words spoken by your child? For these purposes, it doesn’t matter whether it’s one or both parents or a teacher or the principal. No matter how well you know the child and how regularly you interact with him, it’s still guesswork whether to treat his words as credible.

“Unnoticed” retells the story of a man living on the streets. It explains why he’s now homeless, and is completely entrancing because it’s unclassifiable in terms of genre. I’d like to think of it as science fiction but there are all sorts of other possible explanations. It’s the uncertainty that makes it so attractive. “The Good Listener” reminds us there are always lacunae in our own recollections or the records people leave about their own activities. Of course, in this internet age, it’s possible to engage in a little archaeology, to dig into the past to extract the missing details. But equally there are times when it’s better to leave a hole in the data unfilled. It will just feel better that way. “Different Now” wonders how much your worldview might change if an unstable relationship finally ended. Obviously, if she leaves him, things will be different for him. But how different? “Author of the Death” is as elegant a piece of metafiction as you could ever hope to read as, in Luigi Pirandello style, two of six characters go in search of their author. Just think how much of a surprise it would be for the author if they found him. “Sad Dark Thing” is elegaic as those who have lost something dear to them wrap themselves in loneliness and wait for the pain to end.

“What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night” (reprinted in Best Horror of the Year Volume Two) reminds us of that some of us, when younger and less experienced, were afraid of the dark. We asked our parents for a light to be left on so that, should we wake, we would not be afraid. But just suppose, one night when we woke up, the light was gone. That would be a bad thing, wouldn’t it. “The Things He Said” is a rather pleasing riff on the post-apocalypse trope with a man determined to survive. He remembers well all those lessons his father taught him when he was a boy. Now’s his chance to put them all into practice. It would be unfortunate if his father should return and find things not properly organised. “Substitutions” (first appeared in Black Wings) teaches us that although life may sometimes be greener or at least less environmentally unfriendly on the other side of the hill, actually going to look may have its drawbacks. “The Woodcutter” is a rare incursion into fantasy in which a traveller tries to earn an honest penny doing tricks in pubs while waiting for the chance to go home. Sadly, things don’t always turn out as you want in fairy stories. And finally, “Everything You Need” is a story about the process of grieving and, instead of going through a number of stages, it counsels you savagely attack a filing cabinet to get over your loss. That way, you can move on with hope into a different future.

The full jacket artwork for Everything You Need

The full jacket artwork for Everything You Need

There’s delightfully creepy cover art from Vincent Chong to complete the package.

For a review of an interesting literary experiment by Michael Marshall Smith and Subterranean Press, see The Gist.

The Gist by Michael Marshall Smith

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When I was young, there was a very famous story about miscommunication during the First World War. Allegedly, the original message sent was, “Send reinforcements. We are going to advance.” but by the time the relay radio operators had finished transmitting and retransmitting it, the message became, “Send three and fourpence. We are going to a dance.” Although this is probably apocryphal, it spawned many variations like, “Enemy advancing with ham-shanks. Send three and four pence.” There are also references to wild Italians and the need for pants to be pressed. It’s improbable that any of the stories are true. Even in the fog of war, people would not make such fundamental mistakes. The least competent message retransmitter would ask for clarification if what he thought he heard made no sense. The most likely explanation is bored copyrighters in newspaper offices were relieving the tedium of spinning out stories from the trenches by adding a little humour. It’s a process shadowing the game Chinese Whispers in which a group of hopefully well-lubricated people sit in a circle. One whispers a message in the ear of the next person and so on until the final person in the circle announces the message received. The opportunities for hilarity are obvious.

Michael Marshall Smith

Michael Marshall Smith

The Gist by Michael Marshall Smith (Subterranean Press, 2013) is a very brave publishing experiment which I applaud. Since I speak and read French quite well, it proved an interesting hour or so of study. The point of the exercise is simple. Michael Marshall Smith writes a short story about a man tasked with extracting the gist of meaning from a book thought untranslatable. The story is then translated into French by Benoît Domis and then back into English by Nicholas Royle. The translators were only allowed to ask technical questions. The English translator was not allowed to talk to the author.

The point is to see how far the second English version drifts from the first. It’s a classic exercise in semiotics. The meanings one group of people choose to give to groups of letters is initially arbitrary, but through consistency of usage, significance accumulates. Indeed, as the story itself points out, meanings for individual words drift so what begins its life as a signifier implying a responsible person can morph into a signifier implying an individual with a criminal purpose: the example given is henchman. By studying the context, it’s possible to date a work by deciding which meaning is intended for the given word. Moving from the immediate decoding level of attributing meaning to individual words and rising to a meta level, the reader can aim for an overview. At such a level, the individual words of the source become less significant as we strive to capture the gist of what was written. This need not be a mechanical summary. It can actually ignore much of the text and communicate an underlying truth about it. We can call this analysis or interpretation or, if you want to get technical, deconstruction. Whatever words we use, the point is to encapsulate an element of the meaning and make it stand for the whole.

The good news is that The Gist is a reasonably good short story. It’s certainly not the most original and, in a way, I think it’s a little too preoccupied with setting up the philosophical basis for the publishing exercise rather than allowing the natural “horror” to emerge. I’ve read many better variations on this theme. Perhaps that’s why it changes only slightly when retranslated back into English. Both translators would be familiar with this trope and with the necessary apparatus, e.g. the double-sided desk. It would have been interesting if the work could have been translated into cultures which lack such specific artifacts or locations. In saying this, I’m not taking anything away from the translators who worked on the text. Indeed, we should offer them both a sustained round of applause for having most faithfully processed the words to preserve meaning. The only difference is in the length. As a language, French prefers to use more words to carry the essential meaning. English is inherently more pithy. Thus when Nicholas Royle translates back into English, the result is that the text becomes slightly fuller. That’s really all I need say about this interesting experiment, if you get my meaning, that is.

For a review of a collection by Michael Marshall Smith, see Everything You Need.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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