30 April 2012

Book Review | Everyone's Just So So Special by Robert Shearman

Today I shall be examining not The History of the Doctor, or even the wider Whoniverse, but that of the world that we live in - its wars, its empires; its decline-and-falls. But I won’t be doing so through academic texts, ancient art or even representative literature – I’ll be doing so through the grunge-filtered eyes of Mr Robert Shearman, whose latest collection, Everyone’s Just So So Special, seeks to expose every single one of history’s mediocrities, while at the same time illuminating the achievements of all those who’ve fallen between the pages of the history books (heroes all).

I was particularly excited about this release as I’m one of the hundred people who signed up not just for the twenty-one comically macabre tales promised by the blurb, but also for a unique twenty-second that was partially-handwritten, dedicated to me, and starred an out-of-time yours truly. Making the reader feel so very special is certainly an ironic move, given the anthology’s themes, but it’s an exhilarating one nonetheless, and I couldn’t have been any happier with my “Edward G Wolverson 1853-1890” ghostly tale, and particularly with the eponymous Mr Wolverson’s “Master of the Macabre” billing. Given my recent venture into horrific storytelling, I was hoping to usurp my namesake’s moniker, but it’s yet to stick...

In a departure from previous collections, Everyone’s Just So So Special is interspersed with pages of tiny-print text detailing the history of the world according to Shearman. One’s first instinct is to skip over these pages, as the print is so small that the pages look more like an artistic intermission than anything that should be carefully studied, but Shearman conveys even the most prosaic of information with more intelligence and humour than most writers would fascinating material.

Amongst the stories on offer, there were inevitably a few that didn’t set me ablaze, however in every such instance this is probably more due to me missing some nuance than it is some deficiency in the tale. Indeed, the standard of the stories in this volume is exceedingly high; so much so, in fact, that were Big Finish to put out a Shearman’s Greatest Hits anthology in the near future, then nearly half of this book’s deranged misadventures would probably make the cut. Of them, “Endangered Species” is my firm favourite, focusing on a couple who have recently lost a young child and are trying to fill the hole in their hearts with a cat. The trouble is, the cat is constantly bringing home creatures that it’s slain as offerings – earning its keep, as cats like to think that they do. This wouldn’t be so great a problem had the cat limited its hunting to rodents, birds and the occasional wasp (though the latter may just be my cat), but as time goes by it starts to works its way up the food chain, bringing home more and more exotic cadavers for its increasingly-concerned owners. It shouldn’t be funny reading about a grief-stricken pair of newly-weds taking peculiar pride in their improving ability to dismember and dispose of a Panda’s corpse, but it really, really is.

“Times Tables” ups the outlandish ante with a story about a person who, each year, sheds her skin and becomes a new version of herself. Her past selves are promptly ushered away into the attic, where they are forced to endure alongside all her selves that she’s yet to be. It’s a fascinating exploration of the nature of self, dealing with profound questions about whether who we are now is really who we once were, or indeed will one day become, alongside such comparatively paltry concerns as sexual infidelity and boredom. Doctor Who fans may see shades of Paul Cornell’s Timewyrm: Revelation novel here in how the protagonist’s selves treat one another up in the attic, but for me that only added to the story’s appeal, rather than detracted from it.

“Without You, I Wouldn’t Be Alive” is one of the volume’s more moving pieces. Far from being the syrupy serenade that many would surmise, this story instead tells of a man who habitually purchases second-hand books purely for the inscriptions that they carry, and the lonely charity shop worker who thinks that she’s fallen in love with him. Shearman paints some astonishingly alluring pictures through the inscriptions that he fabricates, offering windows into lives and opening doors to stories that range from triumphant to painfully sad. None of them, though, pack the punch of the story’s eponymous inscription, the aggressive connotations of which are borne out in the narrative to harrowing effect.

Everyone’s Just So So Special’s most contentious tales are those in which Shearman uses ad absurdum examples to pass comment on the world and human society, and perhaps the way that they’re headed. “Taboo” introduces the reader to a world where marriages to beasts and incestuous relationships are not only tolerated, but endorsed, and the line in the sand is constantly being moved further and further back. Whilst this could potentially be construed as a rally against the last few decades’ liberal reforms, as ever Shearman simply appears to be championing reason and good sense, which are not even ghosts of memory in the world of “Taboo”.

Another extraordinary highlight is “A History of Broken Things”, which, like many of the tome’s most memorable offerings, examines its themes without any literary artifice. Initially framed as a critical essay that passes comment on everything from fairytales to James Cameron’s Titanic to how Jack Nicholson’s mind works, as the piece progresses we are drawn into the writer’s life and the neuroses that define it; that make it so special. What began as sardonic send-up of our blog-happy culture ultimately proves to be a haunting examination of memory and history, both personal and public.

The final offering, “History Becomes You” (which was nominated for The Sunday Times’ EFG Private Bank Award), again sees the author turn to the preposterous to make his points. One day, the Twin Towers return to the New York skyline; it’s as if they’ve never been gone. Just as quickly they vanish again, taking the inquisitive souls inside them with them, only to return once more, empty. From there, it doesn’t take the more cynical members of the human race long to commercialise the “9/11 Experience”, nor does it take long for its more impressionable members to buy their tickets to oblivion; to look to find meaning in their lives by dying as part of the defining tragedy of the noughties. In few words, Shearman successfully captures that incessant human need to have a purpose and somehow be special, and in doing so he expertly illustrates just how ludicrous such impulses are, and how hollow the prize.

And there is so much more to be found within these pages – a girl who collects dirt, but only Russian dirt; a hitman who blands people to death; a man and his boy both enslaved by a merry-go-round of peripatetic Santa Clauses; a moribund mother who tries to browbeat her child into getting a tattoo bearing her name; even the fall of Rome, only again, and altogether more wretchedly. With each new collection published, Shearman seems to sound more like himself, and less like anyone else. One of his characters describes a newborn baby’s shit as being sweet, free as it is from toxins, which exactly the opposite of what Everyone’s Just So So Special offers its readers. This is a book full of sour, intoxicating ideas and images that you wouldn’t dream of smearing across a nappy. For all their reasonable doubt and sagacious misgivings, these stories are somehow uplifting; it’s as if they encircle the reader and make him feel as if he’s been let in on history’s greatest joke. Everyone’s just so, so special; especially me.

And so says one of the hundred.

Original version first published on http://www.doctorwhoreviews.co.uk, 18th August 2011