Scott McClanahan, ‘Stories V!’

First published on The Huffington Post (20th December 2011) //

The Writer: Scott McClanahan is doing something. This is what you soon realise after opening his new short story collection, Stories V! (follow-up to Stories I & II). He writes plainly, communicates directly, and explicitly addresses the reader from the outset. This is, admittedly, not particularly new. But when McClanahan does it, it doesn’t have any of the staid and academically ‘meta’ tropes that often go with it; you can tell McClanahan feels something when he writes and when he lives. He wants you to feel something too. And he wants you to see the possibilities of the writer-reader interaction.

The Stories: When you read Stories V! you will, after wondering where Stories III and IV went, probably be asking yourself how much is fact rather than fiction. But McClanahan’s point seems to be that this is immaterial, he merely wants you to believe, as he points out. He allows you to glimpse the possibility of both, the reality and the imagination, and without him coming across too smug about it. This adds another world on top of the one he has built, as well as a certain mystique, despite the stories having the occasional predictable plot twist.

‘Nicky’, a story about a younger “Scott” silently but effectively sabotaging a rival, will have you hoping the story is not ‘true’, even though you know it’s a side of reality regardless. This is the same with others, in ‘Dead Baby Jokes’ for instance, a disturbing one about perception and interpersonal confidence tricks, and also in the elegiacal rhythms of ‘Mary the Cleaning Lady’; all throughout there is this simultaneous torpor and transition, a dirge and a hymn. My personal highlight though, is ‘Razy’, the kind of story you do hope is true, a subtly allegorical tale about an embattled tomcat which, like all of the stories, revolves around the themes of life and death, and how to live in between.

The Writing: What is perhaps most likeable about this collection is that McClanahan is open to experiment and have the reader participate in what they are reading, rather than have them off at a distance simply admiring how good the writing is. He puts his arm on your shoulder with the words he chooses, while it’s not even obvious that he’s choosing them most of the time.

Slowhand wisdom seeps through into life lessons from unexpected areas. McClanahan often has a point but he is not sermonising. He has a purpose but he does not make it obvious. And he doesn’t make it the only element of his storytelling that is worth your time. There is space for thought, humour, agony and interpretation. It is not merely a man preaching to the choir about tolerance in the familiar ‘Terrorists’, or the contagious, infecting, poisonous nature of capitalism in its alternative ending, ‘The Second Ending to Terrorists.’ For example, where one writer may tritely describe “a deafening silence”, McClanahan writes: “IT WAS QUIET NOW.”

He shows you this West Virginia he inhabits, but allows you to understand it for yourself. This is probably best demonstrated in the disorientating transformations and revelations in ‘Sex Tapes’. McClanahan knows that leaving some ambiguity can draw the reader in closer, and have them formulate their own ideas themselves, which usually means the thought will stick.

The Writer, again: Out there on the internet, McClanahan is building a following. Reading this collection, I can see why. Word is also circulating about McClanahan’s ability to give a memorable live performance of his work. The descriptions of these events make him sound like a kind of Stewart Lee of readings, infiltrating the audience, touching them and whatnot. It is the same when you read the work silently to yourself. For me, I dined on the words as I dined on Bukowski’s. And they seemed to be off the same menu. Both portray an outward swagger that does not fear or hide.

The Writing, one last time: The writing in Stories V! is like when film critics call an actor brave because they got naked for a movie, or played a villain. This is kind of what McClanahan has done. He is like Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant without the guns and the drugs; not afraid to show himself as the villain, or exposed (maybe as the events didn’t happen) because that’s where the human truth is. You could probably read it backwards and it would mean something, like the devil talking in your ear. He is honest. He feels guilt and regret. He suffers and watches others do the same. He wants to do something about it. Perhaps he is Batman and he’s just trying to tell us (he does make disparaging remarks about Superman IV, it should be noted.)

The Next Thing: McClanahan’s first novel will be put out next year by Tyrant Books. He is also writing The Sarah Book in 2012, a chapter of which is included here. Which is all looking pretty good for McClanahan disciples, particularly as he’s planning some readings in Europe for next year. Look out for him.