When is a short story a novella? That was the question I found myself asking more than once as I read through Dysfunctional Males, a snappy, sleazy, filthy, fun book from the Argentine (or is it Argentinian?) editor and writer Fernando Sdrigotti.
Dysfunctional Males is Sdrigotti’s first English-language book (he’s had two previous in his native Spanish) and it is a collection of what would traditionally be described as long short stories. I often find short story collections frustrating, and I unfashionably love the word “novella”, so as a generous mark of respect, I’m going to refer to this as a collection of five novellas, only one of which – at 30 pages – involves me stretching the term. Dysfunctional Males is about 250 pages and contains five stories, so most of them would be long enough to fill a slim book. Yum, yum, yum, I love novellas.
So. Sdrigotti is the guy that runs Minor Literature[s] and is also described as a “contributing editor” at 3:AM Magazine and Numéro Cinq. This sounds very fancy and very successful, but I don’t know enough about the “online lit scene” to know if it is. I’ve recently started going around describing myself as the “Presenter of a forthcoming web series”, so know personally that titles can be meaningless. I have two degrees and am the registered director of two companies, which makes me sound far more successful (i.e. some success) and solvent (i.e. some solvency) than I am. For example, I do entry level bar work once a week because I need the money: I am not a success, no matter how successful I can make myself sound without lying. Anyway, Sdrigotti will be the interviewee of either episode 3 or 4 of my forthcoming lo-fi web series Triumph of the Now TV, so I suppose I can ask him about levels and measures of success then.
The book’s five stories all focus on single men, men who are dysfunctional in that very contemporary way of not having really grown up (like me: the last two films I saw in the cinema were The LEGO Batman Movie and Logan, which are not films a self-respecting adult should be watching). The protagonists’ ages are vague, but most of them could be anything from 21 to 45, and their stories are set in (mostly East) London, but not necessarily a contemporary London. Drinks are anachronistically cheap in more than one story, and people still use maps rather than smartphones, even in the pieces that feel (otherwise) the most up-to-date. This – when not combined with historic bar pricing – is pleasingly jarring: these men are dysfunctional to the point where they haven’t even worked out how to use Google Maps. Awww.
These dysfunctional men are all gently selfish, concerned with sex and intoxication more than they are with romance or – bar the first and last stories, ‘The Grid (Bosnian Charlie)’ and ‘Herne Hill’ – friendship. One of the novellas, ‘The Vanishing Onanist of E5’, is about a man who wants to be alone, enjoys a solo weekend of wanking to DVD pornography (an anachronistic fetish or a pre-internet setting?), booze and oven pizzas and then disappears into himself as his distance from society reaches an apex.
Elsewhere, there is ‘Satori in Hainault’ – the penultimate and weakest of the collection – which reaches a little further and tries to dramatise, too briefly, about twenty people. This includes an entire cast and crew of a porn film, a lonely central protagonist and two nurses who work the Sunday shift in a health centre that rents its rooms out to pornographers over the weekend. There’s too much here for a piece of its length and everything feels half-sketched, though it does imply a wider ambition than exists elsewhere. The other novella in the collection is ‘Elision’ and is a real triumph – a man struggles to piece together “the night before” through waning intoxication/an encroaching hangover, after having spent an evening fucking a friend’s girlfriend. This one is witty and filthy, as are all the pieces, so let’s GO INTA DEET-ALE.
‘The Grid (Bosnian Charlie)’ opens the collection and is definitely novella-length. It is about an Argentinian man whose friend (a Bosnian named Mirza with an imminent marriage) used the protagonist’s flat to film a series of amateur porn flicks with women who weren’t his fiancé. Mirza’s father arrives in London for the wedding and the three men, plus another Bosnian called Vesco, head out for a cokey, boozy, night in the Mother Bar down in ol’ Shoreditch. After a few toots, the narrator realises he can speak Bosnian – because of the “Bosnian charlie” he’s been taking – and discovers that Mirza has unfairly blamed him for both the existence of the porn videos and their discovery by his fiancé. The four men have a fun time until the narrator chases a woman for extra drugs, falls over and knocks some teeth out. He goes home. The piece is grimy and slimy in that way picaresque fiction often is, and the edge of magical realism offers a relatively unique twist to what is often a very straightforward genre (link to me having a go). The anger and intensity of intoxication is evoked well and wittily, and it’s a strong opening to a similarly-pitched collection.
Second up is ‘Elision’, the most sexually explicit piece. It is the story of Adrian, who arrives into consciousness in that road tunnel under the Barbican, with no idea how he got there. He struggles home in the middle of the night, remembering his day through to the blackout, and convinces himself that the elision of memory he has is covering up a sexual assault. So, while he reminisces on all the sex he had the day before, he goes, hungover, to a hospital, begging for an examination of his anus to check for signs of assault. These scenes are the comic high point of the book, as Adrian’s paranoia leads him to ask increasingly ridiculous questions of himself. There is a very present narrator here, heralded by a reference to Milan Kundera at the opening of the story, and there is no surprise, but some satisfaction, when we understand the truth of Adrian’s memory lapse. Solid.
Third – and shortest – is ‘The Vanishing Onanist of E5′, a wank-heavy, first person slug of loneliness and drunkenness that ends with another touch of that ol’ South American magical realism when the solipsistic narrator fantasises about living with a porn star then physically disappears. Next we have the playful ‘Satori in Hainault’ about a man attending a weekend medical appointment as a porn film is made in the next door ward. As I mentioned above, this piece suffers from having too many characters, and too few pages split between them. There is some strong humour here, but the characterisation – due to the sheer number of characters – suffers in comparison to the rest of the book. Sdrigotti is spreading himself thin here, but there’s always a low point in any story collection, and this book’s low point at least succeeds in maintaining its sense of fun.
‘Herne Hill’ is, however, a belter: a sweet, engaging and emotionally mature piece about lonely gay men. This is Sdrigotti’s only non-heterosexual protagonist, and the lack of explicit sex in this story is a noticeable absence only due to its prevalence elsewhere. This piece is about friendship, about companionship and – though the protagonist is single and recovering from an unspecified illness or injury – seems less dysfunctional than the others. He is less alone, his friends seem to care for his well-being and are letting him into their home as he convalesces. This, similarly to the other stories/novellas, is a piece where “nothing really happens”, but here the “nothing” that happens is eating breakfast, chatting quietly over a pint, playing video games and wandering around London in the snow. It isn’t “nothing happened, but there was loads of cum ‘n’ nips ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ stuff”. It is this final piece, really, that captures an edge that Sdrigotti has seemingly tried to bury elsewhere – his prose is able to hold subtlety rather than filth, be tender rather than funny, stay taut and sad rather than aggressive and harrowing. It’s great that he can do both, but I think Sdrigotti knows that being good at the subtle stuff, the gentle stuff, is a far more valuable skill than being good at the murky, messy, filthy stuff. (Here’s another example of barely-published me doing the dirty thang.)
Sdrigotti’s career and accolades speak of someone with talent and literary merit, yet it is only in the final section of Dysfunctional Males that he – sneakily – reveals himself to be a skilled, nuanced, writer, rather than predominantly a purveyor of filth. Maybe I just find filth less impressive because I can do it (here’s some more, and this one – if I say so myself – is great), because as much as I enjoy reading about wanking and drugs and booze and vomit, what I LOVE to read about is empathy, emotion and warmth. I like fiction that makes me laugh, but I prefer fiction that makes me cry, and though Sdrigotti excels at gross-out gags, he’s able to be better than that. My Spanish is probably up to a novel, so I may look up his earlier books and see how they fare. Dysfunctional Males is great fun, but hidden behind its discussion of assholes, pubic hairs, fingering, cocaine, masturbation, booze, piss, fags and shit is a writer of impressive emotional nuance, and I’d quite happily have read another five stories/novellas if they continued at this quality. A fun read that promises, and teases at, something more than the mere filth the initial pieces contain. Recommended.
DISCLAIMER: I’m like “internet friends” (i.e. on Twitter, not Chat Roulette) with Fernando Sdrigotti, but I’ve never met him in real life (unless I was so wasted I forgot it) and if his book was shit I’d’ve said so. I’d’ve also cancelled the arranged interview for Triumph of the Now TV on the day and made some flimsy excuse like I had bad thrush or something. The result of this bias: I didn’t mention the regular typos OR that the book cover has THREE DIFFERENT FONTS ON IT until now.