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After years of secretly posing like rock stars behind the closed doors of their hallowed writing chambers, middle-aged scribes Stephen King, Amy Tan, Dave Barry, and Ridley Pearson decided to tweak those musical fantasies and form a band: the Rock Bottom Remainders, an admittedly out-of-tune novelty group that periodically plugs in to raise money for various literacy programs. But whereas the groupie-shy King & Co. will never be more than wannabe guitar heroes, several current contemporary-lit prodigies have indeed become—by living lives as People-worthy as their fictional counterparts’, by welcoming the paparazzi glare on their pretty Found Generation faces, by injecting the rhythms of the radio into their reader-friendly prose—full-fledged pen-wielding pop stars. Ask a Georgetown woman whom she’d rather woo over dinner—Brad Pitt or Dave (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) Eggers?—or a Howard man whom he’d rather meet under the sheets—Halle Berry or Zadie (White Teeth) Smith?—and you might be shocked at the answer.
In the new literary benefit album Speaking With the Angel, hot shots Melissa (The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing) Bank, Helen (Bridget Jones’s Diary) Fielding, Roddy (The Commitments) Doyle, Irvine (Trainspotting) Welsh, and John (Things Can Only Get Better) O’Farrell, plus others including Eggers and Smith, get to show off in short-fiction form and, by performing free of charge, polish their sexy, so-cool images. Featuring 12 first-person narratives, the collection is edited by Nick (High Fidelity) Hornby, who, along with contributing a story, introduces the book with an essay about his autistic son, Danny. (The sales of Speaking With the Angel will aid the TreeHouse school in London and the New York Child Learning Institute, both specializing in the education of severely autistic children.) Hornby allows his hipster talent to push the envelope in terms of structure (Robert Harris’ prime minister’s raunchy resignation speech) and voice (Eggers’ garrulous pit bull’s discussion of life after death). And, although the compilation (named after a Ron Sexsmith song) is meant to help children in need, most of the stories—especially Welsh’s Twilight Zone-twisting “Catholic Guilt (You Know You Love It),” about a goon-squad gay-basher who receives a fiendish purgatorial fate—are meant for adult eyes only.
First-person fiction is always a gamble: Pretty much every writer thinks he or she can write splendidly with the “I” in mind; maybe 5 percent of these writers are correct. But, with the exception of a flat few (Eggers’ “After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned,” with its doomed canine protagonist, is a disjointed disappointment), the winning stories here feature engagingly offbeat plots, sly character development, and satisfying denouements. The pacing throughout—whether the author is going for straight-up laughs (Hornby, O’Farrell) or a little something extra (Bank, Fielding, Doyle)—is frenetic. And, despite the themes of isolation and loneliness that connect the dozen pieces, each writer ultimately makes sure to inject, at the very least, a faint whiff of hope come the end. At a mere 233 pages, Speaking With the Angel is highly accessible, whiz-bang flashy—and just the kind of fiction that has elevated this gathering to pop-star status.
Hornby’s “NippleJesus,” about a thuggish London bouncer who flees the violent club life for—what he thinks will be—a peaceful security-guard job at a gallery, pokes pointed, delicious fun at the goofy pretensions on both sides of a “controversial art” brouhaha. (The title refers to a religious mosaic made up of hundreds of tiny pictures of breasts.) O’Farrell’s “Walking Into the Wind”—the flat-out funniest of the lot—follows a mime who, after one night of delusion-building success early in his career, spends the rest of his quixotic life committed to the silent, famously mocked art. He eventually loses his friends (“They said they liked my show….In fact I think it really bowled them over because it was like they were lost for words”), his wife (“Carol worked in the health service, dealing with psychologically disturbed children, which was tough for her because it wasn’t always easy to get time off to come to the shows”), and his kids:
Marcel is nearly six now so he’s seen some of my more recent pieces. He’s so funny, I was talking to him about my work when he was sitting in the bath a few months back, when he said, “Dad, it would be much less boring if you talked at the same time.” The things that kids come out with! So I told him about the sublimated tragedy of the comic performer who’s lost the power of speech. About how silent mime evolved out of performing restrictions imposed on the early French theatre and that I used no spoken words because mime is a poem written in the air. And when I finished this explanation I looked down at him in the bath to see if he had taken it in. He was stretching his foreskin into different shapes and he said, “Look, I can make Pokémon faces with my willy.”
On the more sober side: In “The Wonder Spot,” Bank offers a sweet, straightforward love story about a downtrodden 30-something heroine who surprises herself by hanging on to the man of her dreams (“My boyfriend is a decade younger than I am; he is full of hope”)—even in the face of a statuesque New York City model. In Fielding’s “Luckybitch,” a gray-haired siren who proudly boasts about having screwed Hemingway, Sinatra, and Matisse—and who has just offered up “a slice of tongue pie” to her daughter’s wandering boyfriend—takes a drunken tumble in the bathroom and finds herself unable to move. The vapid golden girl—alternating between panic for herself and concern for her daughter—calms herself by thinking that, if and when she’s found sprawled unmoving on the cold, hard tile, at least she’s wearing her Dior shoes and Escada dress.
But the best story in Speaking With the Angel is Doyle’s “The Slave,” about a 42-year-old husband, father, and tile-layer who finds a dead rat one morning in his blue-collar Dublin home. The stiff, bloated vermin, found mere minutes before his toddler son wobbles into the kitchen, jars the man into an existential, albeit comically awkward, wakefulness—and makes him strive to reclaim and appreciate the altogether wonderful life he has managed to build. He commences this process by staying up through the night and standing sentry for more wayward critters:
The only reason that life can go on in this house is because we manage to keep nature out. And it’s the same with every house. And nature, now, isn’t lambs and bunnies and David Attenborough—that’s only a tiny part of it. And it isn’t bird watching and saving the whale. Fair enough, but that’s not what it is. It’s a lot rougher than that. Life is a fight between us—the humans, like—and nature. We’ve been winning but we haven’t won. And we never will. Nature will never, ever surrender. The rats, for instance.
But this isn’t just some misguided Rambo of suburbia talking here. In the end, as he continues his predawn routine of drinking coffee and listening to the mundane sounds of the day kick-starting around him, he comes to terms with what he has already lost—and what he will inevitably lose:
I mean, I recognize what’s going on in my head, what’s been going on for a while, actually, on and off. It’s middle age. I know that. It’s getting older, slower, tired, bored, fat, useless. It’s death becoming something real. It’s the old neighbours from my childhood dying. And even people my own age. Cancer, mostly. Car crashes.
So a simple man in a simple story concocts a simple plan: He decides to dance more. And buy an album a week. And train for the Dublin City Marathon.
And like any enduring, endearing pop star, Doyle—or, for that matter, Hornby, O’Farrell, Bank, and Fielding—stays true to his clever, complex muse all the while giving his readers what they want:
“I’m getting there,” Doyle’s Everybloke says, reaching for a book that he’s been meaning to read for years. “I believe that. I really do. Fuck the rat. And fuck nature.
“It’s just a matter of time.” CP