How The Light Gets In by Clare Fisher (Influx Press, 2018)
Order How The Light Gets In direct from Influx Press here.
How The Light Gets In (Influx Press, 2018) is a collection of short fiction written by Clare Fisher (@claresitafisher). Although she has previously published a novel (All The Good Things, Viking, 2017) this is her first collection of short stories, and it’s great.
The world (perhaps that’s the wrong word) that Fisher evokes is very familiar, is very relatable, and on the two or three occasions when a piece veers outside of that, it’s pretty apparent (not that these off-theme pieces are bad, just different). Ironically, this is the opposite of what ordinarily disappoints me when I am disappointed by a short story collection, i.e. a lack of variety, a failure to change tone, setting or pace. In How The Light Gets In, though, I-
Gonna start that again. How The Light Gets In offered a different reading experience to what I am used to when reading short fiction, quite possibly because – and I haven’t mentioned this yet – this is a collection of flash fiction, as in hyper short stories, as in stories of such a minimal length that that that there are literally almost a hundred stories here, even though the book is only 200ish pages long.
That’s right, I shit you not Open Pen readers: this slim volume of short fiction contains about 100 stories. That’s an estimate, I haven’t counted, but certainly it was a lot, probably about that amount, and it allowed me to slip into a dense web of fictionality that wrapped me up, battered me about and made me laugh, made me weep, made me think about life tens and tens of different times. This is realistic, contemporary fiction, and the book contains a deep and – finally in prose – ubiquitous relationship with smartphone technology. How many times have I checked my phone while writing this review? How many times have you glanced towards yours while reading it? In Fisher’s stories, social media and smartphones are everywhere, but not in the clunky, unrealistic way they can exist in fiction, but as a believable and accurate representation of how technology forms the background to our lives now. Much like how fiction from the 19th century included industrial smog, poverty and slums as an unremarkable backdrop, and Renaissance texts contain (to a modern reader) an excess of references to the Christ child, the internet is what life is now, and Fisher captures that elegantly, captures it true.
Fisher’s stories are often frank and often visceral, with lots about sexuality and relationships and human interactions, painted with a clear emotionality. There are some great turns of phrase, some gorgeous vignettes, and there are recurring characters and narratives throughout, often with a twist of perspective or a clear change in time. For example, we meet a young woman shamefully recounting being the victim of a violent knife attack while she was intoxicated, and much later in the book we find her finally coming to terms with the facial scarring this left her with… We meet a family grieving for the loss of a mother/wife, where some of the children try to steal possessions from their rapidly ageing father, while later on we see the father gaining a new lease of life by finding an online community of people who care as much about documenting potholes as he does. These are just two of the connected pieces, and though not everything recurs, a lot does, and as this became more apparent towards the final section of the book it made me wonder if I had a) missed connections that I should have noticed, or b) presumed some that weren’t intentional. I’m a self-critical reader, though, whatever I’m reading (or doing more generally) I will find a way to judge, critique or otherwise insult myself. Fisher’s stories engaged me, and maybe I saw all the links, maybe I didn’t, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself whichever way round this was.
Like Influx Press’ smash hit short story collection of last year, Eley Williams’ Attrib. and other stories (my thoughts here), How The Light Gets In discusses contemporary British life with a focus on family, on work, on responsibility, and on relationships. However, both of these books have distinctly different styles. While Williams’ work contains a complex engagement with the nuance of language (i.e. the structure of words and sentences themselves and the “real world” repercussions of the gulf between what we need to express and what we can express using the linguistic tools we possess), Fisher instead evokes beautifully complex scenarios, relationships and identities in crisp, swift sentences. This is an emotionally potent and often arresting volume of stories, and it uses lists and thematic repetition to drive its points firmly into the psyche of the reader.
One story, ‘trying’, stuck with me: “London is a city of trying. / Trying to be faster, funnier, quirkier, cleverer […] But trying is hard.” The rest of this piece is then a list of distinctly contemporary events and how hard they are, including “It’s hard when you’ve just been dumped and when you’re comfortably single and when you’re so comfortable in your relationship that you don’t always remember to shut the door when you go to the toilet.” Yeah, as Fisher writes in the final paragraph, “It’s hard being human”, and there is this thread of truth, of wisdom, I suppose, throughout the book. Fisher is my age, my generation innit, and the way she evokes the life lived by youngish literary types navigating complex adulthood in the millennial age is accurate and engaging (to me anyway). The stories here feel like things that have, will, might and could happen to my friends, to me, to my peers, to my own family and to the families of people I know. Life is complex, life is hard, life is full of difficult decisions and confusingly complex events, we are all part of other people’s stories as well as our own, and How The Light Gets In manages to capture this by using the reappearance of people and places in the background of other lives.
That is what real life is like – a minor interaction between people can be thought of in different ways: for example, one story details a young woman taking a photograph for some tourists on a bridge over the Thames, only for these people to reappear much later as the centre of a story about adoption and quasi-incest. Fisher flips the focus of this chance encounter, and this reflects reality. This is a cacophonous and complex collection where echoes and shadows constantly exist: the cracks of light, the cracks of darkness.
I’ve never read a collection of flash pieces before, but I’m really glad to have done so, because – at least here – the patchwork, quiltlike, mosaic world created is a deeply human one. Because we enter into and then out of so many different experiences, moments, identities, we are collaged into an understanding of a wider existence. There are – and I suppose this is the most significant thing about a collection of flash fiction – roughly 100 stories here. Yes, one hundred whole narratives, and though some of them do connect, it is not 100 chapters of one story, it is not a “novel in flash”. At first I was worried that I was going to find How The Light Gets In kinda tiring to read – not having read a book like this I was uncertain how to approach it. Should I read every piece slowly and closely like a poem, savouring each word, or should I instead read them like I would ordinarily read prose fiction, i.e. more quickly?
For me, the difference between how I read verse vs prose is that – in prose – I expect characters, images and narratives to demand the most attention, rather than – as often in poetry – the way the work is constructed. I think, to be honest, this book would be appropriate to be read in both ways. Fisher’s short pieces are elegant and precise, but they are also characterful, witty, moving and insightful at the same time. Some of them are tragic, some of them are uplifting, and some of them are very funny (for example ‘things smartphones make you less likely to do when in a private place, with or without other people’, which is exactly what you expect). Because every piece is short, but cohesive, Fisher has a freedom to move from idea or tone or topic easily. She uses lists, she uses juxtaposition, she uses the quotidian and the rare, she writes about tired relationships and good relationships with equal clarity. How The Light Gets In is a pleasure to read.
Maybe, in this, the digital age, flash fiction is due the kind of ascension that people have been saying it’s due for years, maybe 600, 800 words is the right length for a story now. It isn’t unsatisfying to leap up and down the country, from children to old people to lovers to siblings to friends, from the city to the countryside, from happiness to its opposite, because this is the way we experience the world now. In the past, people didn’t: in the past, life was a lot more like a traditional novel: we were born, we grew up, we started work, we got married, we had children, we got old, we died, all of it in the same place, for the vast majority of people. If there was sadness in our lives it was a constant, if we were content then it didn’t vary much either. There were less surprises, and when surprises did happen, they were catastrophic, they were destructive of generations and economies and lives. Surprise was all the more colourful and dangerous because it was so rare. Now, we are all over the place all the fucking time. I am in Barcelona as I type this review that will be published by a London-based magazine, this morning I was on the phone to a lover in a different timezone, yesterday I had a job interview via Skype with someone in China, and in between that I read a book of poetry from 100 years ago, I watched an episode of a TV show about aliens, I read news articles about the Middle East and half of a recent issue of Viz; I saw tweets and Facebook posts and Instagram posts from all over the fucking world, with all sorts of messages. I encountered depressed Americans, ecstatic writers, disgruntled comedians sharing their own bad Edinburgh Fringe reviews [review submitted to Open Pen in August], all sorts of moods, from all sorts of people. Like How The Light Gets In – a melange of lives and ideas and feelings and places, images and language and tones that are as disparate as it is possible to be. Every single possible emotion is being felt by someone in the world right now, some people are even feeling more than one. How The Light Gets In reflects what it is like to be in the modern world, where every glance at our phone offers us a different journey. Flash fiction, done well – as it here is – has the potential to reflect the tapestry of digitised, online life, by drawing attention to the short narratives that we encounter every day.
Fisher – using a variety of language and an array of well chosen phrases, characters and images – has created a book that captures, through a COLLOSAL amount of stories, an accurate representation of real life, and the real world. I, for one, really enjoyed it, and I’d be very keen to read more [good] collections of flash fiction, so please recommend me some via @Scott_Hadley. There’s also lots of use of the second person, which I am always happy to see.
Order How The Light Gets In direct from Influx Press here.
If you like this review and love poetry that isn’t shit, please pre-order Scott Manley Hadley’s debut poetry collection, Bad Boy Poet. It’s poetry, but it isn’t shit.