It has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy that the publishing industry can’t sell debut short story collections. If it’s a new collection by the likes of Richard Ford or William Trevor then they don’t seem to struggle, but when it comes to unknown authors they’re often reluctant to put substantial money behind anything other than a full-length novel. Because the major publishing houses don’t publish much short fiction – and rarely back it with a marketing campaign when they do – the public quite rightly tends to assume that these short story collections aren’t worth reading. If they were then they’d be making more of a fuss of them, right?
All of which makes Bang Crunch something of a rarity, even if it’s still not been afforded the media attention that a novel might have earned. It undoubtedly helps that most of the material on show here has already been tried and tested. Of the nine stories that make up the collection, seven have previously appeared in anthologies or journals. Some have even cropped up in both. Most of them will have passed us by, however, so at least there’s some justification for this ‘new’ collection.
The other justification, of course, would be Neil Smith’s innate storytelling ability. Like many of the younger wave of fiction writers working on both sides of the Atlantic (Will Self and Chuck Palahniuk spring immediately to mind), I sincerely doubt that Smith could write a dull sentence. Every phrase and every character is imbued with a sense of otherness and wonder, as if Smith is viewing the world for the first time, wide-eyed. The atmosphere he creates is that of a place where anything could happen – and often does.
Opening story ‘Isolettes’ is a fine example. The protagonist is called An. Not Ann, but An. It makes for awkward reading at first (an what?) but it draws the reader in, making the everyday strange and intriguing. The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit where An’s child is undergoing treatment is pronounced ‘NICK U’ by the hospital’s doctors, ‘as if it were a University. “Our kid is studying at NICK U”. ’ The story also features a top floor apartment known as the pent-up suite, due to the residual anger left behind by its bickering prior tenants.
Sometimes all this invention becomes a little overwhelming, but by and large it’s put to good effect. What undermines the collection as a whole is the varying quality of the material, and it’s soon clear that these stories must span several years of writing. Either that or Smith learned how to iron out his faults at a disturbingly fast rate. The most impressive achievement is the closing story ‘Jaybird’, one of the two stories making its debut here. It’s also the longest work in the collection, and it shows just what Neil Smith can do given a little space to work in. It certainly bodes well for that first novel, whenever it might come.
Bang Crunch is ultimately a little too erratic, and a little too slim, to buck the publishing trend and prove that a collection of stories can be just as powerful as a novel. It may have over 230 pages, but those wide margins are fooling no-one. You can’t help feeling that if it had contained another five or six stories – and ‘Jaybird’ had taken its rightful place centre-stage – then it could have been a truly noteworthy publishing event. As it is, Neil Smith’s debut collection maps out the potential arrival of a noteworthy talent. We’ll just have to wait and see if it lives up to its promise.