Eley Williams - This is writing that centres on the weird, tender intricacies of the everyday where characters vie to 'own' their words, tell tall tales and attempt to define their worlds.
Eley Williams, Attrib. and other stories, Influx Press, 2016.
This debut collection from Eley Williams centres upon the difficulties of communication and the way in which one’s thoughts — absurd, encompassing, oblique — may never be fully communicable and yet can overwhelm.
Attrib. and other stories celebrates the tricksiness of language just as it confronts its limits. Correspondingly, the stories are littered with the physical ephemera of language: dictionaries, dog-eared pages, bookmarks and old coffee stains on older books. This is writing that centres on the weird, tender intricacies of the everyday where characters vie to 'own' their words, tell tall tales and attempt to define their worlds.
With affectionate, irreverent and playful prose, the inability to communicate exactly what we mean dominates this bold debut collection from one of Britain’s most original new writers.
Alight at the next
Once upon a time, there was no more once upon a time. The classical trajectory for drama and fiction—the setup, exposition of character, action and dramatic high point, followed always by conflict resolution—it’s all but written on a tablet of stone. But nowadays we’re all sceptics: experimenting, agitating, dismantling longstanding idols. And thank the Lord for that because it’s through just such reinvention that art and storytelling stay vital. In contemporary fiction, especially in the shorter form, stories no longer need a beginning, middle and end. Plot is relegated, with “voice” instead being key. Main characters need not be heroes, or even sympathetic. And we can no longer expect closure, neatly packaged with a bow on top.
In publishing, it’s the independents who most consistently champion those in these hinterlands—writers driving a stake into virgin ground. And Influx Press are building a strong reputation here, one which their latest offering, Attrib. and other stories by Eley Williams, will further cement.
Williams’ thematic concerns are largely timeless at heart—there are many riffs on young love and playful abandonment—but her construction is unorthodox and achieves for sentences, whole stories even, something akin to what onomatopoeia does for individual words. And through just such oblique approaches, Williams succeeds in telling “irregular” tales, in making each riff unique. So instead of “once upon a time”, the opening story, ‘The Alphabet’, is about trying to hold onto your loved one’s idiosyncrasies, your memories of why you love them, while your mind unravels through brain damage. And the story giving its name to the collection, ‘Attrib.’,is not so much “In the beginning”, more “I’d like to get an honest day’s work done, but as I hold this tooth-stripped spare rib from last night’s #34 (Char Siu), I can’t help but think about the creation of Eve”.
Williams’ USP (even, at times, brilliance), is to drop us in on lives at seemingly innocuous moments—and then wrong-foot the reader, contort the unfolding story, and ultimately distil something elemental from the seemingly banal. Consider the premise of ‘Alight at the Next’: you’re about to get off a packed Tube and are still deciding whether to invite your boyfriend home, when the doors open and someone commits the ultimate public transport sin—they attempt to get on before giving you room to disembark. And in your instinctive outrage, you block their passage. In real-time the drama plays out in two seconds, is forgotten within three. But slow it down, right down, until an eon passes between heartbeats. Zoom in on the decision tree, on myriad thoughts, observations, combinations and permutations—and on your boyfriend, all the while inching ever closer. My favourite piece however is ‘Fears and Confessions of an Ortolan Chef’. Williams’ interweaving of high French cuisine—and ultimately, the politics of eating meat—within a story of a couple coming apart at the seams is frankly breathtaking.
While Williams’ “I may have been tripping when I wrote this” style is present throughout the collection, there is variation in pace, emotional temperature and superficial context. Superficial because of the multi-layering, in the hiding of a sober message or mood under psychedelic colours. Loneliness, emptiness, the ridiculousness of wearing a badge, love in full bloom, love withered on the vine—each story’s core is buried under the unremarkable, the frivolous, the downright hilarious. Despite elastic leaps of imagination scrambling the surface, these stories keep getting pulled back to that obfuscated—but intact—core. It’s the balancing out of centrifugal and centripetal forces, within story form.
‘Platform’ illustrates this perfectly: in this piece the protagonist expresses her lovelorn state through a poster on her wall, a blown-up photo of the last time she saw her lover. In the background stands a businessman whose toupée has just taken flight on a gust of wind, moments away from smacking into the face of another sober suit. The protagonist wouldn’t have noticed, only she’s spent the past year staring at this final image of her lover, and has only now clocked the drama unfolding in the background. Here and elsewhere, Williams shows us the tears of a clown. Perhaps the author wasn’t tripping after all.
Williams does stray, occasionally getting so caught up in word games, in linguistic gymnastics, that the soul of the underlying story gets obscured. But at its best, Attrib. is the distilled spirit of modern storytelling. In Attrib. and other stories, Williams achieves for the act of reading what high-definition has done for watching TV. Those universes that form and dissolve within five seconds of idle thought? That’s Attrib. - Tamim Sadikali
Williams is co-editor of fiction at 3:AM magazine. Her prose has appeared in the journals Ambit, Night & Day, The Dial and Structo; in 2005, she was awarded the Christopher Tower Poetry Prize and her work has been shortlisted twice in The White Review's Short Story Prize. She teaches both creative writing and children's literature at Royal Holloway, University of London.