'This little mite, this godhead'

Eley Williams, Attrib. and Other Stories

Influx, 176pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781910312162

reviewed by Leonora Craig Cohen

The word that most immediately springs to mind when considering Eley Wiliams’s debut short story collection is ‘abundant’. From personal observation, most contemporary collections of short fiction contain 10 to 12 stories – Attrib. clocks in at 17. Williams’ use of language strains the limits of intelligibility with its polysemy, inventiveness and sheer brio. This is how one character describes a landmine-detecting rat: ‘I’ve personally raised this little mite, this godhead, this tiny boy with a heigh-ho the wind and the rainbow from when he was but the size of a jelly bean.’ Many of the stories take place within a moment or a very few moments. It is like reading with a raw nerve: existence happens at such intensity one struggles to distinguish the enjoyable from the agonising. In ‘Fears and Confessions of an Ortolan Chef’, the two are inextricably bound up: the pleasure of the birds’ song and the nasty business of drowning them, their delicate savour and the shame of having enjoyed it – a shame that requires the gourmand’s face be covered with a large white napkin, as per tradition.

Animals appear frequently in Attrib., often as symbols of emotional states the human subjects find hard to express. One of the standout stories of the collection, ‘Spines’, describes a hedgehog paddling hopelessly in a holiday swimming pool, as different members of the family invent excuses both to avoid fishing it out and to avoid engaging meaningfully with one another. The more conventional pacing of this story enhances the dread induced in the reader and slowly transforms the unremarkable features of a middle-class French holiday into sinister emblems of indifference.

In other stories, a woman rises early to let a bee out of her sleeping lover’s window, exposing herself to a train carriage full of pedestrians in the process and someone shouts at a spider after an argument, because their partner has stormed out. A uniting feature of Williams’s animals is their littleness, or at least their helplessness relative to the humans with whom they coexist. The narrator or narrators often seem to be helpless as well, being shouted at and left. The expectation that we will sympathise with them can become a little wearing. The narrator of ‘And Back Again’’s fantasy about proving their love by acting out the lyrics to ‘I’ll Do Anything’ moves from whimsical to tedious, and is interrupted by the aside that ‘I could grow up, stop fantasizing, do my research properly and realise that Mali was a warzone.’ As the narrator then resumes their imaginary tour of Timbuktu for another two pages, this calls into question their helplessness to stop riffing on the song and weakens the emotional blow of the story’s conclusion.

Another interesting feature of Williams’s narrators is how seldom they are explicitly gendered. The love object is always addressed as ‘you’, never in the third person. A line in ‘Smote (or When I Find I Cannot Kiss You In Front Of A Print By Bridget Riley)’ suggests one possible reason for this: ‘They – people, loads of people – have staged kiss-ins at Sainsbury’s and in Southbank cafes precisely in solidarity with my freedom to kiss you.’ The story is suffused with a fear of exposure, both of emotional exposure to the ‘you’ of the story, but also exposure in a public place as other than heterosexual. It is tempting to read the isolation from all others except ‘you’, the departing lover, and the self-identification with vulnerable non-human creatures as connected to the peculiar pain of the queer breakup, in which one’s ability to express sorrow is limited by homophobia or the fear of encountering homophobia while in a weakened state. Furthermore, sounding out the collection’s title may yield a smutty pun. But to insist the stories are all about one relationship and one narrator, queer or otherwise, would be to force a finality onto them that they consciously resist. Williams’s second epigraph ‘trolmydames [of this word I know not the meaning]’ makes it clear that sportiveness is to be prized above certainty.

An interest in sound and its role in conveying meaning is a recurring theme in these pages. Williams has recently released a pamphlet of poetry entitled Frit, and if the keenness of her ear in the collection’s titular story is anything to go by, this too will have sonic playfulness aplenty. In ‘Attrib.’ a foley artist sits alone in their room, listening to the tree branch saying ‘lament’ and the radiator announcing ‘Sissinghurst and gourds’, desperately trying to work on an absurd project in which they must create an abstract soundscape to accompany an exhibition of Michelangelo’s most famous works. Even the sentences that don’t evoke the foley artist’s room coming to life with noise are a joy to read aloud: ‘I have a hazy memory of the myth about the birth of Eve, that of a lonely man clutching his side in a garden and asking that a helpmate be Deliverood unto him.’ A spare rib from a takeaway is both rubbish and a potential instrument, just as the story is at once a descriptive piece in which very little happens, and a meditation on the creative process as it relates to the story of Genesis.

As part of its formal experimentation, Attrib. contains a good deal of humour. ‘The Alphabet’ is an attempt to describe the narrator’s experience as their language abilities deteriorate and their lover leaves them because of their aphasia. Along the way it takes delight in lewd puns such as mislaid / miss laid, reimagines of the alphabet as various bizarre shapes and includes a description of a hairbrush as a ‘scalp-tufter’. Later in the book, ‘Synaesthete, Would Like To Meet’ reflects a mirror image of this story, inverting it so that when the narrator meets up with their love interest all experience becomes less intense and easier to bear. The doctor’s concern that the narrator is about to have ‘another episode’ drives him to follow the narrator around waiting for another reaction as significant as that to the love interest, not recognising the difference between watching Casablanca and going on a promising first date. Williams’s entertaining and versatile first collection must be attributed – or ‘yield[ed] as due’ – the resounding praise it deserves.