Silence save for his spoon.

A Good Man, by Edward Docx

Picador Shots is a range of tiny pocket-sized books containing two or three short stories by a writer. A taster of their work. That’s the idea anyway. In the case of Edward Docx’s A Good Man it contains one short story (titled A Good Man) and the first chapter of Self-Help. It’s perhaps petty of me, but I was annoyed to discover that half of what I’d paid for wasn’t actually completed work but an advert for another book.

Anyway, that leaves me with Edward Docx’s short story. I’ll quote the opening, and then discuss some of the reservations I had about it.

Hook-fingered and with clumsy mitten grip, he gropes his way. Veins of ice luminous in the fissures of the rock. The wind is at full roar. Deafens him. Blinds the white light of his head torch in furious flurries. He has no axe. He will be blown to his death if he does not slide to it. Ten years since last he passed this way. Seldom in darkness. Never in a storm.
He can no longer be sure if he is following the wall of the ravine or perhaps a smaller cleft that leads off. He kicks his boots into the snow, triyng to find footholds on the ice beneath. Twice, three times, he has almost fallen. A rock comes loose, hits hard against his knee. He cannot hear his own curses. This is too steep. Wrong. Shards sheer as he struggles for hold. He edges sideways. Another rock wall to his left. He reaches for it. Slips. Hangs on. Conscious of his human weight on the slope. Surely he is climbing the mountain itself, not the low saddle of the ridge. The wind is whipping the spindrift, so that the snow seems to rise more than fall. His hands are stiffening, cold. His mittens saturated. He must up.

He must up? Really? His human weight? Was Docx afraid I would otherwise think he was an android or an alien? Also, “furious flurries”, “shards sheer”, soon after we get “scrambles and struggles” and a page or so later “flitches of frozen fern”. There are other examples. It’s an amazing amount of alliteration.

Docx is being intentionally opaque in this story (though the back cover gives away most of the secrets, regrettably). Who is the man? Where is he? When is all this happening? Why is he climbing this ridge, or if he is unlucky this mountain? It’s all revealed in time but Docx asks the reader for a little faith along the way.

The answers, which I won’t reveal, aren’t bad ones. The story at the heart of this short story is reasonably interesting. The problem is that it’s so self-consciously literary. It’s overwritten. That opening aims for punch, but I noticed the technique so much it prevented it working. This isn’t the sort of story where the reader’s being asked to engage with the text as text, but that’s what I was forced to do anyway.

Docx has a talent for description and for implied content. Here the reader does not know who the “her” mentioned is, but she carries emotional weight all the same.

By the door, chairs are piled on one another. Rows of boots. A camp-bed. A table. An old lamp. A box marked ‘gloves’, another one ‘socks’. A third: ‘baby clothes’. It is not her hand. He does not remember having even looked in here before. Perhaps it had not been fixed up back then. Before the children there was no requirement.

There’s some nice dialogue. All very sparse in proper Carveresque fashion. The problem remains though that it’s literary fiction with a capital L and F. It knows it’s literary fiction. It smacks of workshop (though I don’t believe it came from one). It’s what people who don’t like literary fiction don’t like. Well crafted disappointment with a faint whiff of boredom.

Kevin of kevinfromcanada recently wrote about Docx’s latest novel here. It sounds like it’s not wholly successful but has its moments. Notably Kevin praised Docx’s first two titles and made them sound very appealing. Self-Help was of course long-listed for the Booker. Docx can clearly produce good work.

The point of the Picador Shots is to provide an introduction to an author. I didn’t think this story great and I’m not sure it did Docx any particular favours by way of introduction. Docx here has fallen into the trap of writing what essentially amounts to highbrow genre fiction. His long works look better.

In the interests of full disclosure I should mention that five reviewers spread across goodreads, Amazon UK and Amazon US were basically unanimous in giving this five stars. I disagree, but I thought it worth mentioning by way of counterbalance.

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8 Comments

Filed under Docx, Edward, Short Stories

8 responses to “Silence save for his spoon.

  1. I have the same reservations as you. Didn’t like the style in the quotes, but as you say, a longer work is better. Sometimes people are just better novelists than they are short story writers, and vice versa of course.

  2. From the quotes and your description, I would agree that this does seem like some sort of writing “exercise” rather than a “real” short story. I would also note that part of what I liked about Docx’s first two novels was his ability to capture the urban environment — this story (like his latest novel) seems to send him instead into the territory of over-describing the wilderness.

    And I would be equally annoyed to discover half the volume was the opening chapter from another one. Shame on Picador.

  3. leroyhunter

    Ditto Guy and Kevin. Ironic that Docx sparked a comment furore on the Guardian books site by claiming the inherent superiority of literary fiction when he has this lurking in his resumé.

    Boo Picador! Penguin are the only ones I really trust with this type of format; presumably this is an attempt to ape their varous mini-lines.

  4. “The problem remains though that it’s literary fiction with a capital L and F. It knows it’s literary fiction. It smacks of workshop (though I don’t believe it came from one). ”

    This is such a spot-on demolition of a style of writing. I believe the problem with it – or any style of writing where the prose style suffocates the story / ideas supposedly being explored – is the self-conscious efforts of the writer to WRITE. It is akin to an actor over-acting, drawing one’s attention to the method and task, and alienating the audience from immersion within the fiction. Self-conciousness inhibits a writer because they’re writing whilst thinking about how their work will be received, what status will it garner from reviewers, what its merits are, whether it looks like writing – not just writing to communicate a mood, story etc. I have noticed this especially with writers such as Will Self’s fiction, Amis’s fiction, the way Hitchens conducts himself both in print and person – they are all being WRITERS, where as Henry Miller say just got everything down on the page he needed to tell us.

    Your paragraph above struck me as tapping this same shortcoming in Edward Docx, and given the alliteration-weary examples you showcase above it seems he’s blundered down the same word-overloaded road, I’ll probably give it a miss time being finite. Whatever happened to less is more?

  5. Hi everyone,

    Docx doesn’t appear to have produced much by way of short stories and my suspicion is it’s just not where his real talent lies. Interesting too if he’s just plain better at describing the urban than the rural. Entirely possible, and if so let’s hope he returns to the cities he’s so much better at.

    I doubt Docx would see this as a genre work, but that’s precisely what’s wrong with it. I have mixed views on whether literary fiction can properly be called a genre – do the books of Will Self, Muriel Spark, James Joyce and James Salter all really fit within any kind of recognisable common framework? I’m not sure they do. Even so, Docx manages to make this faintly formulaic. It feels like an exercise in genre, which literary fiction never should.

    Regarding self-conscious writing there are of course writers whose work is about form – where the point is the language used and not any issue of plot or character or description. With a writer like that immersion is to be avoided – the point is to engage in a conscious way with the prose itself and immersion would work against that (and is probably impossible).

    Docx clearly isn’t in that territory. He’s not an experimentalist forcing us to reconsider the form of the novel or anything like that. He ends up here though caught between two stools. His language is too evident to allow the story to flow, but not sufficiently interesting to make the story redundant.

    I won’t defend Hitchens who I think is a tedious bore, but I do have to admit that I’ve rather enjoyed some of Amis’s writing (showy as it sometimes can be I admit). I’ve not read much Self. My impression is that he is of the tradition that argues that the novel is inherently artificial and that there is no need therefore to shrink from artificiality within it. I could though be totally putting words in his mouth.

    Kevin, we were discussing at John Self’s memoirs and the relationship between author and work. Amis is an interesting example there. I like some of his books, but the man himself as best I can tell is a dreary and unimaginative bigot. The talent I see in his books is nowhere evidenced in his public statements (except for his ability to still craft a good one-liner). Others may of course differ with me on my views of him, but it is an interesting example of how one’s views on the art may be utterly different to one’s views on the artist.

  6. That one won’t increase my book pile at least. (and I dislike stories about mountains and snow and climbing).
    I too would have been irritated to find a sample of another book instead of another short story.
    Literary fiction is an Anglophone thing. That cetegory doesn’t exist in French and I always wonder what it really means. Some sort of big bag where you put all the books you can’t put into a precise genre? It implies that there’s non-literary fiction (I can see what that is) and also literary non-fiction? (what? memoirs? good travel books?)
    Btw, I’m currently reading Money and I enjoy Amis’s style. I’d appreciate it more if I weren’t in the dictionary all the time but after 150 pages, the vocabulary tends to repeat, I should enjoy it more from now on. (all these British informal words and realities I don’t know!…) He doesn’t take himself seriously, at least that’s how I feel when I read.
    I don’t read interviews of writers and I don’t watch them on TV : I don’t want to know how they are outside of their work. I don’t want their public character to influence my opinion on their work, especially if they overdo it to sell more. Plus, we aren’t equal in facing and coping with the media. Sometimes, they’re hard to avoid, like Frédéric Beigbeder in France.

  7. It sounds like its rather “over-written” and that the medium is getting in the way of the message. Having read your extract I am far more inclined to believe your opinion than the five reviewers who thought it was five stars. I often comment on value for money of books I review and this one would really annoy me. A pretty presentation is not enough.

    However, following your and Kevin’s mentions of Docx, I’ve bought Self Help – its in the amazon spring sale. I need to know about this writer I think.

  8. The lack of clarity as to what literary fiction actually means as a term is one reason it provokes arguments. It’s as opposed to genre fiction or general fiction (general fiction being fiction that’s not really in a genre but isn’t really literary either – it’s all a bit circular).

    If you like Money I’d also recommend Success, which I remember liking. I was less keen on Dead Babies. I thought it tried a bit too hard. As for Money, I think it’s a pretty impressive book but I’ve not read it since the 1980s.

    On authors, Tom McCarthy is now my main example for this. He’s an interesting and talented writer, but his interviews aren’t an advert for his work. He comes across terribly in them. He seems to lose potential readers with every one (though I suspect most of them wouldn’t actually have read him anyway).

    Tom, that’s certainly my view on it. Such a contrast to Bartleby (which I’ll write up soon) which was so clearly written and yet had so much going on still.

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