I’d never heard of John Lanchester before I stumbled across this slim volume going for a song on Amazon and decided to take a risk. He’s won lots of prizes and been longlisted for the Booker, while short story credits include Esquire, New Yorker, and London Review of Books. We don’t move in the same circles, and I came to Reality and Other Stories with the usual expectation I have whenever someone from the literary end of the spectrum dips a toe into the water of genre – to see the wheel reinvented and mouldy old dough declared the best thing since sliced bread. Yes, I am cynical, and possibly a reverse snob, but also delighted if and when they prove me wrong (Daisy Johnson – looking at you, among others).
Opening story “Signal”, the first of eight (four of them previously unpublished) has a family invited to a country house weekend by their rich friend, only to find there is a tall man on the premises who takes an inappropriate interest in their children. At heart this is an old fashioned ghost story, celebrating both the supernatural and our obsession with technology. It’s engaging, but at the same time not really disturbing, simply because early on the reader gets a handle on what’s happening leaving the actions of the characters as simply filler. Entertaining, in part for the depiction of how the other half live, but unmemorable.
In “Coffin Liquor” an academic who believes in nothing except hard facts attends a conference in Romania where the supernatural is very much the order of the day. Professor Watkins is a comic figure, like a character out of the work of his favourite writer, Charles Dickens, his shortcomings exacerbated and throwing everything that happens to him into a different light, one that makes you feel the pompous little man deserves to get shafted. It was an amusing piece certainly, and with interesting things to say about the nature of reality, but ultimately seemed too detached from its material to effectively unnerve. There’s a Kafkaesque feel to “Which of These Would You Like?”, with a prisoner who cannot discover what crime he has committed being questioned on the details of his coming execution. It’s an interesting idea, but the matter of fact tone, which I usually find very effective, on this occasion didn’t work for me, made it all feel rather tedious.
In “We Happy Few” a group of intellectuals debate misuse of language and the nature of reality, and by doing so stumble upon the secret of what is happening to the world, with dire consequences. There are some fascinating ideas here and the story, largely consisting of dialogue, is eminently readable, even if the introductory passage put me off these snooty people, but in the end it doesn’t really go anywhere, is just the lead in to a weak punchline, the kind of thing that Dick did so much better and with greater insight. Title story “Reality” has the contestants in a reality TV show slowly coming to the realisation that actually things are not as they believe. There’s some good stuff going on here, with the attitudes of the various characters – their constant jockeying for position and obsession with how they appear to the audience – entertaining as a dissection of reality TV personae, then with an end reveal that shows the huge gap between reality TV and actual reality by substituting one for the other. Probably the best story in the collection.
“Cold Call” is one of the stories that comes closest to pure horror, with a woman who ignores an emergency call from her demanding father-in-law reaping the consequences. It’s an entertaining piece, one that like the first story made excellent use of modern technology, and I found myself sharing the protagonist’s hatred of whiny Gerald, but the ending was entirely predictable and not very satisfying. Jarlath allows his youngest son to assemble “The Kit”, with the nature of what is being put together intended to shock or surprise the reader. At bottom it’s a joke story and goes on a little too long for its own good, with the reader guessing the twist/punch line way before the reveal. It was readable, but not exactly memorable, and if the author intended a subtext along gender lines then it fell flat.
Banging down the coffin lid we have another horror story, “Charity”, in which a selfie stick with a horrendous provenance is gifted to a charity shop, with unpleasant consequences for all concerned. It’s a strong end to the collection, with images of horror that help bring the story to unsettling life, and offering a satisfying variation on the cursed object trope.
These are interesting stories, but the impression I had was that Lanchester was more about the ideas than their fictionalisation. Reality and Other Stories was a collection I enjoyed, but at the same time I didn’t feel I would have missed anything much had I resisted Amazon’s blandishments. Yes, it seems we are damning with faint praise.