I feel like I’ve heard of David Wheldon before, but I have absolutely no reason to have done so. I think this is more likely to be a result of the fact that a) I know many, many, people (mostly men) called David and b) Wheldon isn’t a crazy obscure surname. This chapbook short story – The Automaton – is a 2017 Nightjar Press publication, and like the other Nightjar Press pieces I have looked at on here before, it’s a mixed bag. I love the image on the cover, but the story that is contained within is a piece that seeks ambiguity in its plot, but ends up creating confusion in its structure. I think this comes from a certain kind of overambitiousness, because the story does a great job of scene and atmosphere-setting… until it introduces the eponymous automaton, and then it all just… i dunno… stops moving.
The story opens with a sentence that is never referred to again, which caused me to spend most of the story waiting for a callback that never came. The story, it states, is a found text discovered in the pocket of a dead soldier during World War One. Although this does give a vague sense of the chronological setting of the piece, it creates an unsatisfying ambiguity around whether or not the story is meant to be a memory or a work of fiction written by a soldier. If the latter, what difference does it make, if the former, which character within the story is the said dead soldier? And if neither, who is the dead soldier and should we care?
From this point, the first half of the story is a reasonably successful piece of atmospheric historical fiction about a boy whose parents are the caretakers of a failing provincial theatre. He is sent on an errand to the country pile of the aristos who own the theatre, where he mingles with the servants and discusses the potential for a career within the world of service. As a poor boy – but educated – this is a good potential outcome for him, though is the reader expected to assume he will die in the war? If this is the case, is a reader meant to pity his lost adulthood? I fucking hope not, David Wheldon, as a life spent helping some entitled aristocrats live a dream easy existence is a life just as wasted as a life dead in a ditch in France as a teen.
After this engaging first half of the story, we are then back to the theatre, where a new act begins to perform, a chess-playing female automaton who is able to beat every chess player in the provinces. People gamble against the machine, uncertain of what the trick is, and she wins and she wins and she wins. One night, the boy sneaks into the green room where the automaton is stored and she begins to give him lessons, seemingly operating without anyone controlling her. Several nights pass like this, the boy learning how to play chess (again, if he is the character dead soon after in France, why would we care about him knowing how to play chess???), until one night the automaton’s owner comes and shouts at her that she needs to stop winning every game. The boy knows, though, that the owner didn’t make her and the owner can’t change her.
So, basically, it ends with the idea that it’s all magic and it’s all real, as the automaton begins to cry.
Why would I care about the emotions of a living puppet? Why would I not care about the man dead in the war? Why would I not care about the deserved collapse of the aristocracy? Why would I care about a provincial theatre?
Though there are several strains within this story that I enjoyed, overall there was just far, far too much that went in directions that didn’t interest me. The potential exploration of the effects of massive war on ordinary people is interesting, the discussion of class structures crumbling is interesting, the rapid modernisation and urbanisation of the 19th century is interesting, the changing landscape of the country due to the spread of the railways is interesting, how old ideas of entertainment died out over the course of time is interesting… all of these are ideas that interest and – tbh – excite me. Giant crying, living, puppets that are half alive, though… NOT AT ALL.
An engaging piece, I suppose, but I don’t want magic and fantasy and bullshit, especially when it comes from an engagingly set-up first half about class and society in the run up to international collapse. 50% good, 50% disappointing. Starts in a way I like, but shifts to a way that I don’t. #sadface
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