Open Pen London

Shitstorm

Shitstorm is the first in a series of novelettes from Open Pen. A hilarious and perceptive work from Argentinian writer Fernando Sdrigotti, the novelette follows Dr Walter Turner, a wealth nobody until he accidentally slays a protected lion on the plains of Africa. This niche fallout spirals out of control when global news agencies latch onto the story and celebrity outcry coupled with public uproar cultivates the perfect social media shitstorm.

Will Dr Walter Turner ride this one out? Will he face a public execution? Will tomorrow’s fresh shitstorm save his pants? 

One thing’s certain: no one is coming out of this clean.

Buy Shitstorm

Buy Shitstorm as part of a five book novelette bundle for £20

SHORT STORY OF THE MONTH

Short Story of the Month:

‘A Voice Spoke To Me At Night’

by Helen McClory

‘Loneliness is a terrible thing, wherever you are. I think it’s a stronger force than love, because it’s a kind of love for everyone that is never returned.’

In the spirit of honesty, let’s lay some truths on the table: ‘loneliness’ is cool. Sort of.. That compulsion which pulls one away from the madding crowd, and yet draws the breath of sadness. Even a mild and ephemeral depression carries a quixotic sense of adventure.

When I was a lad, a piquant exoticism decorated the auras of those preferring The Cure, to say S Club 7. (That’s probably not the best pairing to illustrate with, but still…)

In this vein, a dedication to a book of short fiction reading ‘For the lonely’, is for some (me) invitation enough. Like a bee to nectar ( / a fly to shit). And in this same spirit I began reading Mayhem & Death, by the Scottish writer Helen McClory (404 Ink, March 2018) – a smorgasbord of stories concerning lore and hinterlands, both geographic and of the mind. A meditation on loneliness, or perhaps ennui, that nevertheless oozes…cool. So how do ennui and loneliness differ, and where do they overlap? That’s another essay, but for this one, let’s record that Mayhem & Death bathes in this twilight. 

As an arrangement, the collection is unorthodox – crammed full of flash fiction, a couple of regular-length short stories, before ending with the first part of a novella. One can’t imagine a traditional publishing house running with such a project, so kudos to the independent 404 Ink for giving it the green-light. 

The opener is a perfect mood-setter – the story of a woman, once a mother, revisiting the life and death of her daughter. Both natural-born outsiders, isolation hangs like a pall without explicit reference – only implicitly, with McClory giving us a taste of her descriptive prowess: ‘…Madeleine was like that, like a storm cloud poured into the shape of a girl, able to make a whole room feel … the tortured static of her moods.’ And the flash fiction runs with the tone set – death and the ghosts of the dead, but with a further step taken – into the unseen. McClory presents fantasy in such an everyday way, that these worlds seem less like the product of imagination / more like an alternate-reality – one which our myopic vision and faith only in our senses, prevents us from seeing. Put another way, it’s our failing that we are blind to what we inflict on the loved-ones of animals we kill – be that for meat, hide or pleasure. That we don’t see the angels of death, coming to collect what we owe them – our final breath.

And buried within the collection is A Voice Spoke To Me At Night, one of the few regular-length stories, within a work dominated by flash. 

From the first sentence, the protagonist is drawn in feather-light touches. The portrait is intimate, despite revealing nothing concrete – the character’s name, her age, where she lives,… And yet we are pulled into her world, with its small and innocuous dimensions. Here is a young woman whose life holds no rush of blood; indeed, it barely registers a pulse. And despite the absence of even a single Ugly Sister, her lonely state is compelling: takes the shape of a modern-day Cinderella. As she slopes from bedroom to kitchen to 9-5 to bedroom, we understand completely who this girl is, her physical, emotional and material circumstance. And the complete absence of any plan, a vision for her life beyond the day to come – it all makes perfect sense, despite McClory serving up no backstory. Importantly, none of this is ‘heavy’, either for the girl herself, or the reader: the author imposes no emotional tax. It simply is what it is.

And then… Then we are blindsided by a fantastical turn, lifting the story clean off firm ground. Our wan and simple girl finds a twin, a kindred spirit. Not a friend of a friend or someone at work or a twinkle-eyed stranger on the train home, but a man living in…her wardrobe mirror. And the meshing of these two worlds – spanning time and place, age, gender, language, Biblical plague and post-modern immunity – it’s all perfectly done. The portal between these atomised souls is sustained by one thing – their shared loneliness. 

Love, lust, hate, envy,… the ‘big’ emotions grant the writer some licence: they can ‘go large’, get a little bombastic, even. Because that, Ladies & Gents, is entertainment. But ennui and loneliness…just a story of girl, serving up ketchup-on-toast for one. How does that fly? Well, just read A Voice Spoke To Me At Night, and it’ll all become clear.

o          o          o

Reviewed and recommended by Tamim Sadikali

Mayhem & Death (404 Inkby Helen McClory was release in October 2017. Buy now.

 


 

Tamim Sadikali is the author of Dear Infidel (Hansib, 2014), and has recently completed a short story collection. Twitter: @TamimSadikali.

Launching a Bad Boy Poet

Or a #BadBoyPoet.

We are launching our first ever book, Bad Boy Poet, at the awesome Burley Fisher Books in Hackney, 7pm, November 14 this very year.

If you know Open Pen mainly from our online presence, you’ll probably know Scott Manley Hadley. He hangs about here slagging off books and occasionally loving them in his regular review column.

But he’s pulled a Truffaut. He’s risking it all and taking us for the ride. This is his debut collection of poetry, Bad Boy Poet, a “confessional style” book charting the life of a confused and conflicted youngish man as he tries to work out who he is, following a mental health crisis and the subsequent breakdown of a relationship. Also there’s loads about poo, illness, ageing, masculinity, Pierce Brosnan, sexuality and dogs.

The book is priced at £5 on the button (yes, FIVE POUND MATE) and is every bit as well dressed as its author. You can pre-order it here, and of course copies will be available on the night.

It’s going to be a great night. Burley Fisher are the hosts with the mosts (like a functioning bar and stuff), and the Bad Boy Poet is going to smash it. Get this, there will be nude portraits on show and “live karaoke-style original hip-hop”.

Afterafterparty to take place at Brilliant Corners, a short hopskip down the road.

To RSVP and for full details: https://www.facebook.com/events/2067842883259186/

Launching a Shitstorm

Open Pen Novelette ≠1

is Shitstorm by Fernando Sdrigotti.

This fierce little book hits bookshops in November. We initiate this Shitstorm at Brick Lane Books on Thursday, November 8. Sdrigotti will read from his Shitstorm that very evening, following a short Q&A with Influx Press head Kit Caless.

The book is priced at £4.99 and when you see it, you’re gonna freak at how attractive it is.

To RSVP and for full details: https://www.facebook.com/events/2067842883259186/

More on our novelette series. and Shitstorm.

Introducing Tamim Sadikali

This week we welcome a new short story head to the Open Pen unit (P-Unit). And this very day we launch our monthly Short Story of the Month feature, brought to you by that very short story juggernaut, the formidable Tamim Sadikali.

Each month Tamim will give us his favourite story from the world of short fiction. New, old, print or online, if he’s feasted eyes upon it it’s got a shot of being our Short Story of the Month.

Tamim is himself is a writer, currently working on his own short story collection, and even lending himself to that most egregious of formats the “novel” with his debut Dear Infidel (Hansib), released in 2014, and available to buy here.

You can follow him on twitter @TamimSadikali.

Check out his first Short Story of the Month:

Short Story of the Month – “A Polish Joke” by AGNIESZKA DALE

 

SHORT STORY REVIEW

Short Story of the Month:

‘A Polish Joke’

by Agnieszka Dale

 

Why am I here, you ask? You want to start? Is this your first question? I’m sure I’ve told you before. … I came to Great Britain to mix my blood. This was my only reason, which I gave to the border control guard. Not the benefits, not the work possibilities, I said to him, but sexual intercourses with a Brit.

What? You don’t have that option on your form? … Sorry. Just tick “other reasons”.

In the future, they’ll slow the ageing process down… right down. Men won’t hit their straps until 100. And we’ll all have more sex. Not for intimacy or love or even animal release. Just to… explore possibilities. Combinations and permutations. ‘User-testing’, if you will.

‘So’, I hear you ask (cry), when is this nirvana due? Well maybe, just maybe, it’s ‘now’. Because if we were judged from the past or the future, or even laterally – North, South or Outer Space – we’d be flayed. For all that cocksureness in the consensus mood of our day…we could look like fucking idiots. And that’s the jack-in-the-box of Hello Poland, a story in Agnieszka Dale’s Fox Season – the Polish-born, London-based writer’s debut short story collection. Hello Poland is surreal, absurd even, but funny – very funny, and illustrates something exhibited throughout the collection – the use of a clown-face to mask sober meditations: here, a parent’s love for their child, and the folly of (over-)confidence in our mores. 

There are exceptions. Basic Wash, for example, is an uncomplicated but beautiful story about death. Told through a young boy, we see him observe his father being hit by a wave of grief, on remembering his mother during some mundane moment. And death and dying aside, feminism and in particular motherhood, are strong, satellite concerns. But the core of Fox Season lies not in sex or death or the nurturing instinct, but in the existential nausea of the migrant. And this perspective that Dale brings – of being at home and yet feeling like an alien, of being made to feel like an alien… Of having absorbed a litany of micro-aggressions, and yet finding ‘us’ to be the strange ones – this is the eye of the storm, raging in the centre of this collection. Dale is a far-from-dispassionate all-seeing eye: bearing witness and choosing not to forget; to instead write a barbed love letter to Brexit Britain. And even when a story is not about the Brits, it sort of still is. Making Babies for Great Britain boils down to Polish women having to endure British men, who fail to rise to the occasion / always come in their pants. (Caveat: reviewer could be being paranoid here..)

Despite the course grist to her mill, Dale’s stories are surreal; playful, even. Indeed, the author’s humour works on two levels: superficially, the often oddball jokes work – ‘…It was of course a scary prospect to be on her own, on a farm, with three boys, one of whom was a little girl called Barbara…’ – but the humour is mere obfuscation, masking a sustained attack on her targets: and it’s the British who most often are caught in the crosshairs – specifically, their (perceived) natural-born sense of superiority over…well, everyone. (Dale’s take on the ‘White Other’ category, as seen on the UK Census and other forms, is worthy enough reason to pick this collection up.) 

In Fox Season, Dale makes her (British) reader walk through a Hall of Mirrors and have a good laugh at all the weird and wonderful distortions, before exiting and realising that, sans mirrors, the distortions remain. But for all the tipsy humour, her points are consistently sober: that as a woman and a mother, life would be complicated enough. And that the experience of migrancy, of being a Pole in London, has been akin to soured cream poured on top. Very occasionally, she lets the funny-mask slip – ‘…will the world ever laugh at British men, collectively, the way they laughed at Polish men in the twentieth century?’ – but mostly the message is well wrapped up in riddle, and her sing-song is entertaining, pleasantly distracting, to the point where one could almost miss that the joke is really on ‘us’ (you). ‘There’s a white man, a black man, and a Polak…’, begins a set-piece within the same story, the stellar finale to the collection, A Polish Joke. And you’ll have to read it to see how that one ends… Suffice to say though, that through filters of prose and humour, Dale is earnestly paying back the ‘compliment’ – and with interest.

o          o          o

Reviewed and recommended by Tamim Sadikali

Fox Season: and Other Short Stories (Jantar Publishingby Agnieszka Dale was release in October 2017. Buy now.

 


 

Tamim Sadikali is the author of Dear Infidel (Hansib, 2014), and has recently completed a short story collection. Twitter: @TamimSadikali.

Twennietwo

The world is at sea, and there are tales to wail, we say. And here they are, they are the stories of

Open Pen Issue Twenty-Two.

Our cover is blue and amber and on closer inspection you’ll see the land mammal; a leopard. It is most likely Josh Neal’s final illustration for Open Pen before he goes off to conquer the world as the finest living, breathing illustrator colour has known. We thank him for his wonderful illustrations over the years that have become synonymous with Open Pen. Where do we go from here?

Fortunately we’re just as into the fiction in our pages as ever. The leopard you see is the visual interpretation of our cover short story, ‘Margot and the Leopard’ by London based Nicole Adams.

N Quentin Woolf returns after a short hiatus with ‘Independent Thought’, and Limehouse Books editor Bobby Nayyar provides the guest editorial.

The fiction continues with shorts from Anita Goveas with “Undercurrents”, Simon Marshland with “The Anniversary”, “Barcodes” by Gene Farmer and Open Pen guilty pleasure Mat Woolfenden closes the edition with “Deathbed”.

Look out for Open Pen Issue Twenty-Two, it’s free and it’s hitting your indie bookshop September 29.

Also worth keeping an eye on is our online presence. We’re keen to put out as many short stories we believe in and enjoyed as possible, so as has been the case over the last few issues, we’ll be extending the issue across our website, giving you more scowling, frowning, naughty clowning fiction than ever. More, more, more.

If you can’t hit one of our stockists, consider subscribing to Open Pen.

REVIEW: HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN

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.

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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.

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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.