Always a delight to open a new William Boyd and find it dedicated ‘To Susan’. Nothing to do with me, obviously, but still… Short stories are almost as welcome as a novel for me these days particularly when two of them are pleasingly lengthy. Boyd’s collection also includes seven much shorter stories but, perhaps inevitably for a reader who still prefers longer fiction, these two were the ones I enjoyed best. Several are linked by the theme of art – those who would like to make it and those who do.
At just under 100 pages, you could almost call the eponymous story a novella. In her early twenties, Bethany flits from job to job, cursing her habit of immediately adding the last name of every attractive man she meets to her own and assessing the result. She’s the child of well-connected, acrimoniously divorced parents – father in Los Angeles, mother in London with whom she lives when she’s between men. When we first meet her, she’s working in a niche stationers’, spending her lunch hours working on her somewhat autobiographical novel, but before long she’s taken a bit-part in an indie film then she’s working in a gallery, calling herself a photographer. The story ends with the beginning of another year which sees Bethany wondering what she’s going to do next.
The Vanishing Game: An Adventure… is somewhat shorter but long enough for Boyd to have a lot of fun with Alec Dunbar, an actor down on his luck who accepts a job delivering a flask of water, supposedly from the River Jordan, to a remote Scottish church. Alec’s many roles in low-rent thrillers come in handy when he finds himself caught up in a real life version.
Of the seven shorter pieces, three stood out for me. In Humiliation a novelist fleeing eviscerating reviews bumps into one of his worst maulers and spots an opportunity for revenge. The Things I Stole tells the story of a man’s life through a trail of stolen goods – from a tin of cherry pie filling to his daughters’ happiness – ending pleasingly back where he began. The Man Who Loved Kissing sees a philandering gallery-owner get his comeuppance when his sure-fire way of avoiding another financially ruinous adultery backfires.
There’s much to enjoy in this collection, not least it’s humour. Bethany had me laughing out loud several times, reminding me of the comedy in Boyd’s earlier work. Most of the stories explore worlds which Boyd knows well enough to ridicule effectively. Both writing and film feature but it’s the art barbs that are the most satisfying reminding me of the Nat Tate trick he and David Bowie pulled off back in the ’90s. One of my favourites is Fernando Benn – Neville to his friends – who declares in Bethany: ‘I’m not a photographer… …I’m an artist who chooses to work in lens-based media’. Benn’s show consists of photographs of war photographs clipped out of books, surely a law suit waiting to happen if the gallery were not so obscure that no one will notice. He pops up again in The Diarists peddling ‘faux-faux naif’ art to the rich, so bad it’s good. A few of the shorter pieces felt a little dashed-off to me but on the whole this is a very enjoyable collection, enough to keep Boyd fans happy until the next novel.
If you’d like to read another (possible) short story convert’s review, you might like to pop over to Cleopatra Loves Books who was thoroughly won over.