Even though it’s 2016, this week I’ve read an entire book1 on a digital device for the very first time. That book is Radar Road: The Best of On Impulse, a collection of short stories by the Chicagoan writer Nath Jones. The following post is going to (I hope organically) discuss both the experience of “E-reading” (or whatever it’s called) and Radar Road itself.
Short story collections are always difficult to judge. Very few offer consistent levels of quality unless they’re abominably shite, as even great collections inevitably have a dud, and likewise a spell-binding, deeply moving piece can be found in the middle of a book that is otherwise uninspiring. Radar Road contains around 25 stories, selected by Morgan Sorvillo Kiger (rather than the author) from four previous collections of prose and poetry put out by Jones over the past few years. The pieces within Radar Road do seem to have gently differing styles and tones, and with a bit of time I think it would be possible to separate them into four distinct groups. Though Jones’ interests/concerns and settings don’t change much, there are some pieces that strongly evidence a writer far more comfortable with their prose than others. Jones writes some beautiful, moving, pieces, here, and it seems like the less she tries to impress with language, the more powerful the emotions she evokes. A couple of pieces are a bit saturated with imagery and description, and it is when Jones is stripped back, focusing on feeling and behaviour, that her prose really shines.
Throughout these stories, there is a constant interest in death, and all the best pieces deal with someone who is dying, someone in mourning after a recent death, a death itself or, in a couple of cases, people who have been haunted by a death for many, many years. The collection, largely set in suburban and rural parts of the US, evokes a world very different from the one I live in. In Jones’ stories we have close knit communities, large families, generational traditions, people looking after old or injured family members. There is a lot of warmth, and contrary to the broad stereotypes of the United States we have in Europe about rampant individualism, Jones dramatises the opposite of that, people who are defined far more by the people around them than they are by themselves. The characters in these stories tread the same metaphorical paths as their parents and grandparents before them, in lives that respect and/or elevate posterity and tradition.
Given the current political upheavals over there – i.e. the caricature Republican presidential candidate, the constant race-related violence – it is conspicuous that these stories are centring themselves away from the political present. Then again, it’s nice to be somewhere a little less heated for a moment.
Some of the stories do reference recentish major events. One occurs on a flight in 1999, and the narrator refers to 9/11 and the changes to airport security that happened after that, but the story – and this is what counts – is set before it. There are two references to soldiers being sent to Iraq, but the details and the circumstances of that war are not mentioned and aren’t important. It is the lives of these soldiers, and the lives of their friends and families, that count.
Here, within the personal, is where Jones’ writing is powerful. Gentle, understated references to being shot at, and one story – an early highlight, ‘Norma L.’ – is about a young man maimed by war. These are strong, solid, themes for literature, and Jones works them well. Another piece I loved was ‘Pieta’, where a woman cradles her dying, alcoholic, son following a car accident. Whilst holding his smashed body, she reminisces about his difficult life as the progeny of a three week affair she had in the middle of her uninspiring marriage. It is heartfelt and sad, it is both hopeful and bleak.
Several of the pieces are about situations similar to this, fractures between people in supposedly close families and marriages. ‘Tandem’ recounts the narrative of a young couple encountering a recently widowed old man whose bleak description of a long marriage raises serious questions about their own, for example.
There are a lot of stories here, and a lot to enjoy. Stories about friendship and loneliness, about grief, fear, childhood, memory, mortality. These are rounded and mature explorations of non-citified America. One story, very close to the start of Radar Road, centres on a box where people can put old American flags to be disposed of “correctly”. They’re real – look at this http://www.peoplesdefender.com/2016/08/09/american-legion-post-installs-flag-retirement-drop-box/ Moments like this do keep me distant from the characters, though: this is a language like my own, a society like my own, but with touches of such deeply unfathomable nationalism and pride in tradition that I struggle to relate. It’s like us, but different. Like the Upside Down. Like the Upside Down.
Reading all this on my phone, rather than paper, made for an odd experience. Aware that I might automatically pay less attention than I normally would to literature, I deliberately tried to pay more attention, which means my level of concentration is difficult to gauge.
I often read things on my phone, yes, things like personal emails and messages, but also newspaper articles, blog posts, essays and some short stories. Never anything that is long-form and meant to be read as a whole. Never anything that isn’t meant to be considered temporary, disposable, whatever: I’ve never tried to engage with anything on a phone screen in the way I’ve tried to engage with something presented as a book, and it is a strange disconnect, having the page you’re reading interrupted by push notifications, phone calls, etc, and not being able to mark the place you stopped reading very easily. The other big problem I found was that I couldn’t read the book as I walked, which is one of my key reading times.
To walk around central London reading a book, I look like a quirky, self-absorbed, depressed, pretentious, literary, soon-to-be-suicide; whereas walking around central London staring at my phone makes me look like all those empty-headed business squares.
Walking around central London with a phone in my hand is the behaviour of someone with a career, with responsibilities, with a pension, y’know, not the behaviour of someone who today had an intense panic attack on his kitchen floor because he read an article on the Guardian about how people under 30 have massive mental health issues and no stability in their lives and it made him realise that he was neither “normal” nor “special” so what the fuck is he other than a massive mess with a really cute dog???
I’m the kinda person who reads short stories, not stock reports, my paperback is an identifier, not having one in my pocket/bag/hand for two days made me feel less myself. Maybe it was the lack of the book, rather than general directionlessness, that brought on my hyperventilating migraine on the kitchen floor. Yeah, let’s go with that. It’s much easier to fix.
So, to conclude: Radar Road was great, I really enjoyed it.
However, reading a digital copy of a book, an eBook, is something I will try very hard to not repeat. (Unless I’m doing it for money, I’ll do pretty much anything for money.)
An enjoyable read, a solid collection.
1. Other than the unpublished manuscripts of my own failed/secret efforts: White Lines, Black Truffles; Alone But Not Lonely; The Body and the Baptist and I Is The Way. Really need to do something with these or just properly fucking give up. ↩