(Dog Horn publishing Leeds, 2009); £9.63
As much as we do not like to admit to such trivial temptation, it is often the title or the cover design that draws us to a book. A History of Sarcasm does not, however, represent a history or catalogue of the word sarcasm and its meanings.
Seventeen of Burton’s published stories have been collected together and thus one cannot help but to force a close comparison. The stories are dominated by present tense tales often presented as lists, in parts or sections. “Aabehlpt” is an A-Z list of notes exploring the protagonist’s “perfectly sensible organisational processes” and the problems he encounters with it and with his girl friend. In “Some Facts About Me”, Burton uses a set of numbered notes in which his unreliable narrator announces: “1. I’m a man.” to “25. If I could offer one piece of advice to anyone thinking of taking up lying seriously…”
Burton uses – indeed plays with – different modes of address, challenging the reader to read more carefully as there is often more to the story than the simple narrative. For example, in “Monica gets Messages”, Burton capitalises certain words to illustrate the emphasis given to them by the character speaking. This strategy positions the reader with the protagonist to receive the message contained.
There are framed knowing narratives in stories where the omniscient narrator introduces a character, who then introduces, “reads” or “tells” another character’s story in first person. A History of Sarcasm is introduced by an anonymous preface announcing that the piece is “the concluding part of Dr Stephen Rent’s series of essays… notable… for being the final piece of work Rent penned before turning into a cat.” In “The Irony” an author reads one of his own fictions, recounts a fire-side tale, and recalls other correspondence, all the while trying to free himself from imprisonment in his cellar.
Several of the short stories are first person narratives with characters introducing themselves to the reader directly in a most bizarre fashion: “I am Voom, and I’m a liquid.” (“Voom and Bloom”); “My name is Mark Greensleeves, and I am a liar.” (“Some Fact About Me”). Burton’s strange characters include a door-to-door salesman of “household items that [are] also pens” whose nose grows with every sale (“The Opening”) and a man who walks sideways (“Walter walks sideways”).
Burton’s settings might seem commonplace; however they are observed from a point that belies that commonality. In “The Illusion Of Security”, the two security personnel guard what they believe is an empty building. When one receives a plea for rescue from someone claiming to be trapped on the top floor, he misconstrues it as a wind-up by the other guard. A change in perspective alerts the reader to the unfolding tragedy.
Together with the list formulation, the direct address and simple syntax these stories reveal a formula that often overrides its content. Taken individually, these stories are intriguing and erupt into the reader’s experience in a much larger way than the few thousand words of a short story might suggest. There is no doubt these stories are, as the cover blurb suggests, clever and affecting and able to generate the occasional frisson that remains long after the collection has been returned to the bookshelf. If I have one criticism of the collection as a whole, however, it is that the author’s voice and style are so strong and individual that it can rob his characters of their individuality.
The short story form, the literary pundits tell us, is a complex form of storytelling that is not simply characterised by brevity. The essence of the short story form is its effect. One may imagine a short story as one of the pressure pack duvets that, once it has been taken out of the box, is impossible to get back in. Despite my reservations – this is true of Burton’s collection.