On Chris Power’s Mothers

Chris Power’s first collection of short stories, MOTHERS, is peopled by the restless – forever walking, running, travelling, holidaying, city-hopping, doing anything not to stand still. They are displaced, impulsive, sometimes desperate. The narrator of one story summarises it as ‘the lightness of being far from home, the pleasure and terror of being free to do as I liked.’ It carries the logic, though decidedly not the tone, of picaresque: travellers, like orphans, are liberated to situate themselves from scratch, living without ready-made definitions.

This is certainly true of the three linked ‘Mother’ stories that structure the collection, which concern Eva: first remembering her childhood in Sweden; then travelling along the Costa Blanca; finally married with a daughter of her own. She leads an unhappy life in the shadow of her parents’ death, and travel becomes a way of outrunning her problems, though even here she is following her own mother around Europe, carrying around her guidebook and allowing it to fall open at spine-cracked pages, as if consulting the mother’s spirit. ‘It seemed to help if I kept moving,’ she confesses finally. ‘Whenever I stopped moving everything became… too much.’

Young Eva, in ‘Summer 1976’, reads food into everything: stacks of LPs are liquorice, the air stands thick as jam or greasy with a coming storm. On a dare, the boy who lives next door throws an apple into one of the windows of their apartment block, where it bursts against the wall. (But does she have to be Eva, and does it have to be an apple, so that the story drags around with it the creaking weight of the Biblical malum malum?) Later, after her mother’s death, her taste for life seems to dull. She inherits her mother’s mute desperation; boys are now men, but they embody the same tension between threat and attraction. Later still, tethered to a marriage and a daughter of her own, she loses all energy: stuck in one place, with no water running over her gills, she is reduced, depressed and couch bound.

Listless and withholding, Eva is an unusual character to give the limelight, but in many respects she occupies the thematic heart of the book, caught as she is between the need for love and the compulsion to slip her bonds. MOTHERS begins and ends in Sweden, perhaps the only true centre of gravity for this cosmopolitan crowd of stories. There is also the force of the unspoken, particularly between parent and child: ‘It seemed wrong to ask Mum what she had been thinking about when she was sitting on my bed,’ Eva recalls. ‘It felt like something that would lose its power if we spoke about it.’ In narrative, of course, information does not want to be free, and this ambiguity is what drives all these stories so craftily – partial information, subjective impression, the effort of reading others.

The actions of both men and women are hard to explain away, though they almost always fall short of a partner’s expectations. The men can be slow to know themselves, sometimes drinking as a cover for impulse or physically imposing themselves on their surroundings, whereas the women quietly follow their own path, quietly not saying what they mean. Close relationships, whether familial or romantic, constantly challenge characters’ volition – if travel represents pure freedom, love seems to narrow down one’s options. But without it, there is only the brutal indifference of the wider universe. At the end of a long night, rejected by a lover, a young man watches ‘dawn destroy the stars’.

Power writes arrestingly, particularly about nature, as when a character lies down on the grass and watches ‘leaves divide the sky into shifting fractions of blue’, the phrase simultaneously poetic and precise, with its wonderful rolling rhythm bearing the computational language of division, shifting, fractions. MOTHERS is also brilliantly controlled (for any collection of stories, let alone a first collection). Perhaps this should not be surprising, since Power has been interrogating the form for over a decade – his ‘Brief survey of the short story’ series in THE GUARDIAN has long outgrown its name, numbering 72 articles at the time of writing. On this score, it is tempting to attempt genetic criticism. When Power was writing ‘The Hävang Dolmen’, for instance, with its insensible screaming youth and its coffin-like dolmen, was he thinking of his entry on Franz Kafka, where he wrote about the ‘complex meshing of everyday reality and nightmare… and a world that looks like the one inhabited by you and me, but in which the inner turmoil of the psyche is on the loose’? Is it significant that his first profile was of Anton Chekhov, ‘the author laureate of not knowing’?

Eva once quotes her therapist to the effect that ‘all stories, whatever they’re about, are about you anyway’, and we do find self-conscious elements in a few stories. Any reader reserves the right to skip over paragraphs in which a character gets writer’s block, as in ‘Above the Wedding’, but it is put to better use in ‘Johnny Kingdom’, whose main character is a comedian condemned to stag parties performing another, more famous comedian’s routine (‘He rejects “impersonator”, and resists “tribute act”, although he knows it comes closest’).

Perhaps the most intimate story also appears to be the most self-conscious. ‘Colossus of Rhodes’ runs on two parallel tracks: in the first, the narrator is on holiday in Cephalonia with his wife and two daughters; in the second, he remembers a family holiday as a boy in Rhodes, making him simultaneously parent and child. Power captures the narrator’s parental urge to protect as he covers his children in sun cream, while his young daughter asserts her freedom by standing on her own at the bus stop ‘in a way she considers extremely grown-up’.

Conversely, as a boy, his desire for autonomy comes at the expense of his own wellbeing: while playing an arcade game alone, he is groped in broad daylight by a smiling old man, and later, while lagging behind his family, he finds a dying cat and becomes responsible for putting it out of its misery. Power addresses the reader directly, explaining that ‘it’s a cat in the story because a kitten would be too much’, and that in real life the kitten was killed purely for sport by some local children. ‘Maybe it’s because I never spoke about these things to anyone that I find it so difficult to shape them into a story now,’ he writes. Here, the unspoken becomes a curse, and storytelling a balm, as it will later become for Eva. Stories seem to offer a way of ordering and editing experience – ‘they don’t have to be “true” true’, Eva’s therapist explains – and in doing so, they offer the chance to defang the past. But the chasm, in ‘Colossus’, between the official and unofficial accounts, might leave us wary of fictions that attempt to shield us from the blow.

There is a tendency to think of short stories as episodes while novels are journeys – a sentiment expressed by the most recent winner of the BBC National Short Story Award, Cynan Jones. That works for some writers – certainly it works for Jones – but a collection of stories like MOTHERS needs a different definition. MOTHERS takes a theme too complex to approach except obliquely – the conflict between love and freedom – and, like a particle accelerator, repeatedly fires ideas at it to see what can be inferred from the collision. Power writes mothers, but also daughters, sons, lovers, families and bickering couples, testing different ages, sexualities, genders and cultures to create a composite which arrives at more than the sum of its parts – not a clutch of episodes, but a single, unified, many-sided work, best read cover to cover.

 

First published by The White Review.

How to fix Amazon reviews: let me count the ways

Amazon introduced its five star customer ratings system over two decades ago as a way to improve clickthrough and sales. At first, each book’s rating was the pure average of all its customer reviews. But no one ever said that system was perfect.

Six years ago there was a widespread scandal of ‘sockpuppetry’ in the world of book reviews. Then, three years ago, Amazon sued four sites selling reviews for pay, and began using machine learning to give books a weighted average biased in favour of new reviews, verified purchases and reviews people had marked as ‘helpful’. But in 2018, despite their huge influence on customers, Amazon reviews still suck.

It won’t surprise anyone that Amazon has opted for a standard tech solution to a human problem, but there are so many simple things they could do with their community, which would turn the fact that it is a group of people into a strength, rather than a weakness. Here are five suggestions:

1. Split reviews of the delivery and the product.

I can’t believe this hasn’t been done already. It’s so depressing to see someone’s gnomic whinge about the meaning of ‘standard delivery’ lumped in with an assessment of a story’s quality. It punishes the writer for the sins of the delivery guy. How can anyone equate packaging with imagination? Audible splits its reviews into story and narrator – why can’t Amazon do something similar?

2. Give reviewers a more transparent rating.

Rather than marking out the ‘Top 500 reviewers’, or marking reviews as ‘helpful’ and ‘unhelpful’, follow Uber’s lead and give the customers themselves a starred average. Don’t show reviews by those who abuse the system.

3. Only show reviews once a reviewer has posted more than three.

Airbnb doesn’t list a host’s rating at all until their third review gets posted, partly to give a fair average, but also to prioritise those who are engaging seriously with the platform.

4. If a reviewer hasn’t ‘made a Verified Purchase’ (or as a human might put it, bought it from Amazon), don’t allow their post to appear automatically.

Perhaps they have to write a substantial review of more than 100 words, as many bloggers do – it would make it harder for online communities to ‘brigade’ books for ideological reasons. Though not impossible.

5. Make reviews more social and sociable.

When Amazon bought GoodReads in 2013 for a reported $150 million it already had 16 million ‘users’ (an oddly narcotic expression for readers) on its site, and it now has 65 million. For all that they must have rejoiced in the extra user data and recommendation algorithms, they missed a really big reason that people like it: as a speculative purchase, books feel like a comparatively huge investment of time and money, and a lot of people will only buy a book that was recommended by someone they know and trust.

Some of these suggestions might actually make it harder to engage with reviews, and the idea of adding friction goes against the fundamental ethos of Silicon Valley (and, apparently, Seattle). It could mean some books have two reviews, rather than twenty. But if we are seeking quality, we should look to sites like Wikipedia, which allow anyone superficial engagement but which put up barriers to participation where it matters, with locked articles, forum discussions, roving admins and so on, to make sure not just that people are doing stuff on the site, but that it is a virtuous cycle, improving the community and the content. Because the worst thing about Amazon reviews is that, well, a lot of them just aren’t very good.

 

First published on The Bookseller.

World Book Day talk for primary school

My name is Alex and I have the coolest job in the world (or at least, I think it is). My job is to sit down at a desk and try and think of a story that nobody else has ever thought of before. There are lots of clever people in the world so it’s difficult to think of something that no one else has thought of but it’s very very fun.

The trick is to use your imagination. I can close my eyes and travel anywhere in the world. I love learning the names of new places and imagining who lives there – my favourite place at the moment is called Saskatchewan. I don’t know anything about it, but it sounds good. And I also like imagining what it would be like to live in a different time. It seems like life would be very different for a caveman or a viking or a queen. And it would definitely be very different to live in the future as a space pirate or a robot or an alien. Whenever I meet someone new, I ask them: what’s your story?

Everyone has an interesting story to tell. If someone doesn’t seem interesting to me, it’s not because they are boring – it’s because I haven’t asked them enough questions to find out the interesting bits. Sometimes, though, people don’t want to tell you what they are thinking about – maybe they’re shy – and that’s why I like reading stories too. Because with stories, you can see into other people’s heads. I’m not saying I want to see people’s brains because that would be gross. But once someone has written a book, they can tell you what they are thinking about without making a sound, across an ocean, or across a thousand years. When I write a book, it is like a little piece of me, and when someone else reads it, it is like we are becoming friends, even though we’ve never met. And I think that makes it a pretty cool job.