By Willie Smith
Publisher: Honest Publishing
Reviewer: Grace Read
I’m a big fan of short stories, particularly quirky, innovative ones. So when I read the blurb for Nothing Doing, which described the collection as being full of ‘witty perversions’, I was immediately interested.
Little did I know quite how perverted those perversions were going to be!
There was one story in the collection, entitled Spider Fuck, which I just could not finish. It was repulsive.
I thought I was unshockable; turns out not!
I should have guessed, really, from the title, that the content was going to be hard to stomach, but I didn’t imagine that the word ‘spider’ could be teamed with the word ‘fuck’ in that way!
I was relieved that I was able to read all of the other stories without squirming too much (although squirm I did). And together, the whole collection creates a lasting impression, not because it’s shocking but because it evokes a feeling; a sentiment; something which I can’t quite name. But perhaps I can give you a hint towards it with some snippets:
“Yes, my life in this America is worthless, meaningless, devoid of fulfilment, of intent, of direction. …I see enough fluff to inflate with macho the party balloons of nihilism”.
These sentences from the narrative voice in “Essay On Wheels” sum up the lives of all Smith’s protagonists. They live solitary, introverted and dissatisfied lives. And it starts young:
“One day I came home from school and I was feeling bored, mediocre and angry at nothing in particular” (Loss Of A Pet).
This distinct lack of contentment, combined with a perpetual and futile search for pleasure/satisfaction, sum up the tone of Nothing Doing with a generous sprinkling of ‘to hell with normality’ nihilism.
Smith’s narrators, nearly all first person and all male except one, are frequently situated in closed, dark locations; locked in a bathroom, working in a warehouse storage cupboard, living or hiding in a basement. This cements their isolation and introversion, heightens their obsessions and secrets, and makes the reader feel like an uneasy voyeur.
And yet the twisted happenings of each story are written about in prose that frequently reads like poetry. Smith makes beautiful poetry in his portrayal of his characters and their circumstances; their depraved, sickening circumstances. He writes fun, poetic prose like
“Oh Lord, I recant me of these rants. Can’t you see? It was just a momentary mistake in dietary intake! Don’t hear this banter, this Indianapolis 500 of heretics!” (Ant Rant).
And so the surreal and the horrific become pleasurable to read about. This is an odd reading experience.
Equally, the same twisted happenings tend to take place on a background of traditional domestic American life, which seems unhappy and disconnected. For example,
“A humid afternoon in late August. Mom gone to fetch food for dinner. … Dad of course away at work” (The Hostage Transfixed).
Dad is often absent, mom is always distractedly engaged in domestic chores and the TV is often on, broadcasting relentless commercials or fractured current affairs. In the family settings, the family members are disconnected from each other; they don’t communicate well, they don’t take an interest in each other. This family set-up, characterised by a distinct lack of love, provides fertile ground for adolescent (deviant) experimentation.
A recurrent theme in Nothing Doing is the exploration of what is human merging with what is not. This is at times playful, at times disturbing and never boring. Smith stretches the limits of imagination and smashes the safe boundaries of decency. At points it is actually hilarious (I think). Or perhaps it’s more ludicrous, if only I could figure out whether the scenarios are intended to be funny, or intended to be serious.
Nothing Doing is brilliant collection of short stories for its originality, ability to disturb and its nasty humour. My mental narrative went something like this for most of the stories: “This situation could be funny, but what if it’s meant to be serious? That would make it definitely not funny…” I was kept on edge in this respect, and I liked it.
Nothing Doing is masterful in making an all-pervasive sense of absence and discontent run cohesively through a set of diverse stories. And all the more masterful for using beautiful poetic prose to describe distinctly unbeautiful events.
Brace yourself for a torrid, enjoyable read.