William Boyd, of course, would never think of giving one of his books such a dull title. Would he? But several times during the course of his new collection of short stories, The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth, one or other of his characters will have written a novel, or a film script, or some such endeavour, called Oblong. It is clearly a joke, but not a very funny one.
The real joke is that Oblong would probably have been an appropriate title for the collection. It would, at least, suggest something of the continuity between the stories that he seems to be striving towards but signally fails to achieve.
These are, after all, virtually without exception, stories about novelists, film makers, art dealers, or would be members of such professions. Boyd has, himself, of course, experience in all three areas, so there is an insider feel to much of what we get here. But insider feel alone is not enough.
I hold Boyd in high esteem, he has remained one of the most consistent and reliable of the novelists of that generation. While some of his contemporaries, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, have become dull or irrelevant or self-satisfied, his work has tended to remain fresh, engaging, and well worth reading. Some of his novels (I would pick The New Confessions, The Blue Afternoon, Any Human Heart, and Sweet Caress) are, I think, particularly good. What makes them good is that Boyd is interested in story; there is always a strong plot thread running through his work which keeps us interested in the drama of what we are being told. Which may be why he is also so effective as a screenwriter and even as a director. The cross-over effect is obvious in his fiction not in the usual way, the jump cuts and dialogue that can make so many recent novels read more like film scripts, but in the way he focuses, the way small things acquire significance.
Unfortunately, he has never carried those talents into his short fiction (there is one exception in this collection, but it is an odd exception and I will come to that later). This is the third or fourth of his five short story collections that I have read (if I read On the Yankee Station it was so long ago that I have forgotten all details, hence the hesitation; the collection, The Dream Lover, I know about only because it is listed with his other works in this volume, I don’t recall ever even seeing a copy). And I think the fact that I persist is a perfect example of the triumph of hope over experience: I always expect better of Boyd, I am always disappointed.
Boyd simply seems to have forgotten the importance of story in stories. Instead he indulges in some overly familiar formal literary experimentation. One story of a relationship is told backwards from break-up to first meeting, adding nothing to the countless times we have seen exactly the same thing before. There’s a story told in diary entries, in which each of the diarists witness the same event, interpret it differently, and never fully understand what actually happened. Another story is told entirely through unsent letters. Actually this one is curious, an opportunity missed. Epistolary fiction is, of course, just about as old as English Literature, so the fact that the letters are unsent seems like a novelty, giving vent to rage and frustration. However, so much of the short fiction here is built around that good old typically English emotional experience, embarrassment; so if the letters had been sent the story could have acquired another emotional level as the author then rowed frantically back on his accusations and self-justifications. Maybe not; my thoughts turned this way only because I found the unsent letters themselves so unsatisfactory as a story.
When he is not playing with form, Boyd’s stories tend to be concatenations of vignettes that are vaguely linked without ever really seeming to form a whole. The prime example here is the longest piece in the book, the novella, “The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth”, which describes a series of brief encounters over two years in the life of a young woman. Bethany drifts from boyfriend to boyfriend, doomed to be disappointed by each one in turn and head back home to mother. She drifts from dead-end job to dead-end job, usually acquired through her mother who seems to be extraordinarily rich and well connected (this is not unusual, most of the stories are about rich and well-connected people, or people who move freely in such circles; it is an achingly middle class book). She drifts from artistic aspiration to artistic aspiration: at various times she is going to be an author, an actress, a photographer, a singer, without ever making much effort to pursue these aspirations. And at the end she drifts away from the story, and we re left to wonder what that was all about.
Occasionally, Boyd seems to respond to some atavistic memory that there is supposed to be story in here somewhere. Thus in “Humiliation” a novelist gets revenge on the critic who savaged his latest book by feeding the critic a tainted oyster, which somehow feels more petty than dramatic.
In all of this, Boyd remains a fine writer. On a sentence-by-sentence level the work is engaging; the problem is that the sentences don’t seem to add up to anything. But there is, as I said, an exception: the very last piece in the book, a novelette called “The Vanishing Game: An Adventure …”, which, after what had gone before, I fell upon with cries of joy (so one does vaguely wonder whether the contrast makes it seem more, but I dismiss such thoughts as irrelevant). The story begins, oddly enough, with a quotation from Isaac Asimov; I wouldn’t have Boyd pegged as an Asimov fan, and there is certainly nothing science fictional in this or anything else he has written.
This is, in all honesty, a piece of nonsense that never quite makes sense, but it is also a story of constant action and intrigue somewhat in the manner of The Thirty-Nine Steps. The narrator is a second rate actor who makes a living appearing in cheap action films where he is usually the one who gets bumped off. He has been burgled, his car has been damaged, and his latest audition has turned into a fiasco. Then he is offered £1,000 in cash to drive a car up to a remote village in Scotland. He is happy to accept the offer, but ten suspicious things start to happen. He spots the same hitchhiker at different points along the journey; he realizes he is being followed by a mysterious black car; and so on. Then, when he gets to the place where he is supposed to make his delivery, he finds the woman who hired him apparently dead, though her body has disappeared by the time he gets the police to the spot. What follows is a fast-paced adventure set in a bleak Scottish moor. What makes the story is that the way he responds to each new threat, and the complicated plans he puts into effect to solve the puzzle are all derived from the cheap thrillers he has appeared in. The effect is both ludicrous and gripping, in fact the whole thing would make a good comedy drama for TV; indeed, I wonder if it wasn’t originally pitched as such. It is not as subtly done as the spy novels he has written, Restless and Ordinary Thunderstorms, and the resolution doesn’t quite work, yet the story stands head and shoulders above everything else in this collection precisely because it is a story.