The Numbers by Christopher Burns is another dark, violent, fiction chapbook from Nightjar Press, and this one I thought was great. I’m going to discuss what it is, and why I think it works.
The Numbers is a ten page piece about Danny, an out of work, single, middle aged man living in rural England. He, along with Martin, his brother, inherited a farm, however at some point in the past – after some dodgy bookkeeping and general unfarmerly behaviour – Danny sold his stake in the farm to Martin and has since pissed his share away. The reader joins Danny, at dawn one morning, as he spots a fox while trudging up to his childhood home, Martin’s farmhouse, for his first visit in some time. He has been deliberately avoiding his brother, and this memory-soaked house, as the last time he was there he made a clumsy, rejected, pass at Sarah, his sister-in-law. Martin exits the farmhouse as Danny arrives, off to begin his workday, and shouts through an open window to his wife that there is a breakfast visitor. Danny and Sarah are left alone, Danny ominously looking at and talking about the shotgun left by the door. Sarah gives Danny a massive, meaty, breakfast, and reminds Danny of his inappropriate behaviour on their previous meeting, but clarifies that she never mentioned it to her husband. Danny, bruised by this second rejection, starts begging for farmwork as he doesn’t have any money. Sarah scoffs, tells Danny he can’t be trusted to do admin and that his practical skills just aren’t good enough to be useful. He offers to find and shoot the fox he saw earlier, but Sarah again dismisses this and tells Danny it is time to leave. He goes to the door, but instead of passing through it, he picks up the shotgun and shoots, twice, his sister in law. He reloads the gun and pockets as many extra cartridges as he can carry, and goes and stands in the yard and waits for his brother to return from his early morning chores. Danny shoots Martin as he steps from his land rover, kills the farm dogs before they can leap out of the boot, drags the corpses to the ground and steals the vehicle. He drives from village to village, shooting at the heads and chests of everyone he sees until he only has two bullets (or whatever the right word is) left, not counting – or caring about – the many casualties he leaves behind. He takes the land rover to the coast and loads the penultimate cartridge, but – trying to use his cold toes on the grey beach – misfires the gun. He reloads and, as he works out how to shoot it right, Christopher Burns’ story ends.
The Numbers has a satisfying build to it, and uses that classic Chekovian gun rule, particularly pertinent given what’s happening in the beefy USA right now (truly as much a gammon nation as ours). This is a portrait, very firmly, of a man with nothing to live for and – rare in England – access to a gun. The violence, here, is as much a part of characterisation as it is plot, and I think this is why it works, as a piece. In Jackdaws (see previous blog post) the violence comes as a twist, and as such undermines the character-building that comes before. Here, it is an inevitable, and detailed, conclusion to the evocation of a man who has lost everything.
Mass shootings are done by losers. Mass shootings are done by people who think a mass shooting is the only, and best, way that they can achieve a sense of purpose, of power. We know, from the news, from drama and – I think – from common sense, that actions like this are the result of something broken, something fucked, not just within individuals, but within society too.
I came to this story unintentionally; I opened this chapbook having zero knowledge of its contents. However, I have – on purpose – read two literary books about similar events. The devastating One of Us (by Åsne Seierstad) about Anders Behring Breivik, and Andrew Hankinson’s masterful You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat]. This makes me look like I’m interested in killings, in killers, but I’m not at all. I’d put my enjoyment of these books alongside my enjoyment of the most powerful bits of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, for example, and possibly even my own forthcoming poetry collection, Bad Boy Poet, in that they are all detailed psychological studies of confused, self-isolated men struggling to deal with complex and overwhelming emotions they find difficult to express. (lol I am soooo arrogant to put myself here.) Violence is not the inevitable outcome of a confused masculinity, however it is too common, too much too much too much.
I think the argument still holds that violence as shock is overused in fiction, but I think that strong characterisation – as in The Numbers – perhaps justifies it artistically, though probably not sociopolitically. (This, again, reminds me of the kerfuffle I caused around Morbid Books’ chapbook Sex With Theresa May last Summer. Probably shouldn’t be bringing this up again, but for me it is important to stand by at least some of the rash decisions I made while having a major massive breakdown last summer. READ ALL ABOUT A “VERY SIMILAR FICTIONAL EXPERIENCE” IN MY FORTHCOMING BOOK.)
Christopher Burns’ story is powerful and well told, but I’m still of the opinion that violence and fiction shouldn’t be so ubiquitously connected. Here, at least, although sexual rejection may be a motive towards violence, none of the violence is itself sexualised, which does make a difference to its palatability.
This is by far the strongest Nightjar Press chapbook I have read, and tbh I feel a lot more excited about the other few I have left to read than I did after the others, lololololol.