The Desolation Angel, by Tim Wilson (Victoria University Press, 2011) 189 pp. $35
A piece of wisdom common to the music industry holds that your best song should never come first. Shoving the strongest track to the front of an album suggests the rest isn’t worth listening to. Dozens of internet threads debate the pros and cons of this notion; scarcely any make the argument for short stories. The arrangement of a collection is no less arcane than the ordering of a record. Some stories demand a position at the front, some at the rear. Some may not make the grade at all, once the logic of the collection becomes apparent (if it ever does). It may – in the final reckoning – prove impossible to astonish a reader picking the book up and not disappoint them a little further down the line. Not only is there no right answer, but the contest may be unwinnable.
There is a fulcrum at the centre of Tim Wilson’s new collection Desolation Angel, a story entitled ‘Suits’. It is the longest work in the book and seems to stabilise it. Yet this could be an accident: a parallel piece of publishing wisdom almost certainly states that it’s foolish to start a collection with the longest piece. Implicit is a vague sense of embarrassment about longer works — a doubt for their respect of short-story doctrine. ‘Suits’, though, is an extraordinary piece of writing following the disintegration of a freshly re-structured gaggle of business people as they pursue a trans-continental commute. Over forty pages, Wilson’s writing has the chance to spread out, gather pace. The disco cadence and projectile prose – which in the shorter pieces feels occasionally forced, or jammed-in-there – shimmers, darting between the crushing here-and-now of serial flight-catching and the more promising, elastic past.
The story that starts the collection – ‘Unforced Entry’ – sees Wilson practising his first-person female voice, I would guess as a late apotheosis of the same perspective he used in his thus-far only novel, Their Faces Were Shining. A woman breaks into her ex-house, to retrieve some items from her ex-partner, and in so doing discovers certain home truths. It plunges with a sort of maximalist swan-dive into Wilson-world, reading like Lorrie Moore on a treadmill. No bad thing, but this sort of density rarely escapes a taint of bubble-pricking flashiness. In novels, the effect can be used as a deliberate barrier to entry. One has to wade through several pages of near-unintelligible waffle about bananas before Gravity’s Rainbow seriously gets going. Wilson intends the opposite effect – one is supposed to feel submerged, swallowed up as the story begins, ‘Hi baby, it’s me. It’s your spooky little ex-girlfriend. Your ex-est ex …’ and, though the piece as a whole evokes a quirkily ambivilent emotional history, the intensity of the seduction may spark a flinch.
Wilson is talented enough to be in that enviable, though also slightly confounded grade of artists for whom perfection seems almost within their grasp – but the sharper the prose, the more apparent those bluntnesses that sneak through. ‘Unforced Entry’ is a wonderful piece of writing, the voice rendered in brisk snaps of well-pitched prose, yet it could have been even brisker. A harder edit might have lifted it into the sublime. Wilson seems conscious of this, in a typically exuberant way taking this style to its logical extreme with the brief ‘Satan Loves You, Too’, where the effect is deliberately overwhelming. It succeeds, while also laying the trick out for all to see: a sort of stylistic pyrrhicism. None of this should distract from the fact that Wilson is among our country’s most impressive stylists. He writes fiercely, surgically, with a brute lyricism.
The collection takes its title from an account of the Desolation Angel, materialising atop whiteware to transform the life of an unhappy, but well-to-do 30 or 40-something couple. Present are the dissatisfied couple, the alluded-to but non-specific iniquities, a slim and simpler past, the tarnished and tarnishing frame of modernity, and a supernatural intrusion: the main components of Wilson’s fiction in this collection. It is the only story with an otherworldly presence, but the supernatural lurks off-page, in the suggestion – glazed over the work as a whole – that some fatalistic, super-ego-esque demon lurks in wait for the middle-classes as they traverse their fourth decade. Everyone is on the cusp of a defining moment. No-one sails calmly through their 30s into the 40s – which is as it should be in a short story, though one might nitpick that there is a formal similarity to the crises. Wilson has himself has pointed this out, admitting that these stories are – in many cases – a training ground. Some feel as though they were written by an author exploring the form, before he had ever written a novel. Others feel like works in which someone is exercising impressive novelistic muscles, though perhaps in too small a space. Part of the pleasure is watching an obvious talent finding its footing, revelling in devices, reworking themes. Another is the excitement and energy that comes from slightly overstressing the form. He is at his best somewhere in the middle, galloping towards the crest of that thing we would call a novella if it were just a little longer – the pieces hardest to place in collections like this.
HENRY FELTHAM is a professional writer of films and games. His prose and reviews have appeared in Landfall, the Six Pack and other outlets. He lives in Dunedin.