This collection of fourteen short stories from Rodge Glass is refreshingly acerbic, inventive and cynical. Although most of the stories have been published previously, and separately, they have been brought together here very effectively, and are supplemented with selected poetry and artwork, as well as a handful of new stories.
All of the stories follow the theme of travel, in particular cheap international travel – what people use it for, and what impact it has on them, their relationships, lives and imaginations. If this sounds like a potentially uplifting read, do not be fooled. These stories are more often than not depressing, heart-breaking and shocking, and reading the book from cover to cover (rather than dipping in and out of the individual tales) is a rather sombre experience. This is not to say that this is not a hugely accomplished series of stories; they are uniformly excellent with nary a weak tale among them. Glass has perfectly captured the sense of isolation, dislocation and acute self-consciousness generated in the hearts of travellers, wherever in the world these travels may take them. Anyone who has travelled will recognise these portraits, and the lively writing pulls the reader into fourteen new, highly individual worlds within moments.
These worlds explore many different themes. Modern marriage is put under the microscope as a lads weekend away in Eastern Europe unleashes the worst instincts of the narrator; a young couple argue about fidelity in Uruguay on what is meant to be the trip of a lifetime; a young man working in a call centre dreams of escaping to Arizona; a recently widowed woman holidays in Tunisia and becomes the focus of local young male attention. These are not happy stories, but they are brilliantly realised, realistic tales that cut close to all our bones. Some of them are funny, such as The Monogamy Option, which takes a blackly humorous look at the breakdown of a young relationship; others are heart-warming, like the story of a widower recently arrived in Toronto, who is looked after by a local stranger.
Each of the stories is relentlessly modern; you read with an ever-growing sense of the detachment and ennui of contemporary life, particularly when it is unfettered from its familiar constraints by travel. All of the stories are related in the first person, a technique which draws the reader into the story quickly and almost brutally effectively. Many of these narrators are deeply unpleasant people, or if not, people who find themselves in unpleasant situations or contexts (often of their own making) very swiftly. The overall feeling the reader is left with is one of uncomfortable stickiness, the urge to bathe away the isolation and depression of modern life. The disorientating images that accompany each story add to the overall tone of discordance and nihilism. Cheap travel has given us all the opportunity to travel, to re-invent ourselves – but to what end?
Notably, the book tackles this question from the perspective of relatively wealthy Westerners. ‘Local’ people feature heavily in all the stories, but they’re always seen through the eyes of the Western narrators. This is one of the great strengths of the book, and also one of the features that culminates in the reader being left feeling rather depressed and dirty. We see the exploitation – economic, social, sexual – of people in order to feed a voracious global touristic appetite, while in the background the winds of change are blowing. Take the widow holidaying in an exclusive resort in Tunisia; she is vaguely aware of the Arab Spring gathering pace around her, but is fundamentally uninterested. Instead, she, like all of us, has only herself at the centre of her own personal drama. Glass paints this picture of overwhelming cultural self-centredness with both accuracy and sympathy. He is clearly interested in how and why we deceive ourselves, and in the impact this self-deception has on those around us. But he is not judgemental. He poses the questions for us, and we answer them only as individuals.