Monday, 1 April 2013

Review: "Dot Dash" by Jonathan Pinnock

Jonathan Pinnock has appeared on my blog a couple of times - I interviewed him about being "between books" here, and he wrote a guest post about the weird world of competitive writing here. I've recently read his Scott Prize-winning collection of short stories, Dot Dash. Here's what I thought of it:

Image: Salt Publishing
After ploughing through a string of four over-long and largely disappointing novels, Dot Dash turned out to be just what I needed. It's quite a slim book, weighing in at a shade under 200 pages, but it contains 58 stories. As implied by the title, these are arranged in sequence, with "dots" (very short stories, many of them small enough to fit the 140-character limit of a tweet) alternating with "dashes" (more traditionally sized short stories). The "dashes" tend not to extend over more than four or five pages, so - if you so desired - you could gulp down the entire selection in a relatively short space of time.

I've enjoyed many of Jonathan's stories online in recent years, and so it wasn't a surprise to find myself enjoying this book too. There were some old favourites - such as rZr and Napoleon, The Amazing Arnolfini and His Wife, and Advice re Elephants - but the majority of the stories were new to me. I have to say I got more from the dashes than from the dots, on the whole - microfiction is interesting (and I've tried it myself with varying results), but even when it's done particularly well it often seems more like a demonstration of the writer's skill and/or imagination than a genuine story with real depth. That said, there are some impressive examples throughout the book, and having them interspersed with the longer pieces produced an interesting effect - whenever I got to the end of a story, it proved almost impossible not to read the microstory that followed it, and more often than not I would then find myself reading the next story as well.

Reading this collection, I found myself thinking of Adam Marek's Instruction Manual for Swallowing, as there is the same sense here that you can never predict where the author is going from one story to another, and the only answer is to give in and follow wherever he leads. Neither author pays any attention to the invisible boundaries between genres, and the resulting collection is much richer, more varied, and interesting than the 'variations on a theme' you get with some anthologies. However, where I found Marek's stories had a frustrating tendency to peter out towards the end, Pinnock keeps a tighter hand on the reins and ensures the endings do justice to the leaps of imagination that get the story off the ground in the first place. There is plenty of humour, in both dots and dashes, but Jonathan's prose is equally sure-footed when tackling poignancy (see Return to Cairo or The Guitarist's Inheritance) or horror (the unsettling Nature's Banquet, for instance). Many of the stories occupy a curious middle-ground, funny-but-disturbing, sad-but-hopeful, stubbornly resistant to classification.

When you get to the end (and particularly if you're a writer), it's worth reading the Acknowledgements section, where the publishing and/or prizewinning history of the stories is revealed. Almost all have earned their stripes in competitions, anthologies, magazines, and online publications, and it's easy to imagine Dot Dash becoming a set text for any writer looking to address the tricky question of exactly how you go about getting a judge or editor to notice your story among everybody else's. Jonathan Pinnock's answer appears to be simple: Write - write whatever and however you like, about anything that interests you. Don't worry about being one type of writer or another, don't let genre be a constraint, and - most importantly - don't forget to leave the reader grinning like a lunatic.

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