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.