I found the excessive use of reviews on the cover of this book a little off-putting at first, as I generally don't like being told how good something is and would rather form my own opinion, then compare it to what others think after.
Anyway, once I got over this and started reading these stories, I was gripped pretty much straight away and finished the whole collection in 4 sittings or so. Given the overall length of the book, I could have read them in one go, but I chose to limit myself and let each story (or 2 at a time) sink in as I felt they deserved this.
I won't give a synopsis of each story, as this can probably be found elsewhere, but they all share a common theme of being a snapshot of the character's life (or lives) at key events in their existence, whether they know it or not. Most of the stories deal with loss, be it of someone they love (What They Did, for example), or innocence (Sleeping Bear Lament and The Widow Predicament) or life (Tahora).
Some are sad, some mildly unsettling and others just poignant (Coitus and The Grip being good examples of the latter). These are stories that I feel will stay with you, they are about normal people going about seemingly normal lives and it gives a glimpse of what minor things can alter those lives in the most subtle of ways.
An excellent book then and I'm pleased to say I agree with most of the reviews on the cover!
Most of these short stories are set around Lake Michigan, and most involve death in some way. All of them also work in a very poetic way that is only usually found in magic realist prose writers, like Milan Kundera and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Each of Means' stories works a thread from a single moment in time, exploding that moment and then exploring its myriad constituent parts and its consequences.
This is most clearly highlighted in 'The Gesture Hunter', in which the protagonist begins by saying: 'I'm interested in how people go about their daily lives,. You know, how they bide their time, what they fill all that time up with. Not the big motions, but the little ones, I suppose: someone hanging clothes on an old fashioned line...the fluid motion of her arms lifting the sheets, a wooden pin between her teeth, the sway of the line.'
Each story draws out and rests on precise moments like this, before spiralling off into memory or other tangents, in a way reminiscent of Virginia Woolf's stream of consciousness.
This is a thoroughly thoughtful collection, that makes up for its brevity (160 pages) with the sheer density of its language and import.
This is what the short story is for. For bridging the gap between prose and poetry, for allowing a kind of controlled freedom over a small space that the novel's clunking form doesn't often allow.
Means has a voice that stands out from the field, and it is one to keep track of in the future.
I remember that Stephen King said that a short story was like a kiss in the dark from the stranger' - you were never sure of how it ends ..
Well, this collection is well written and I enjoyed some of the story - but I felt curiously detached from the characters.
The writing is very good, but its very conscious of how clever it it and in the end it detracted from the stories - in a short story you have so little time to get into a character that the last thing you need is to be admiring the style. You need to be grabbed very quickly because there is no room for time to develop a character
I'm sorry if this sounds confusing - but what I would want to have from this author now is a full length story where the style does not dominate the story and he is definately on my watch list
So all in all a goodish collection with some very good stories - with 'What they Did' as the standout one - would make the basis of a good film I thought
For the most part, I found "Assorted Fire Events" to be a strong debut collection - violent, (sometimes) brutal stories delivered in Means's powerful prose, though Means's style of writing (IMO) can sometimes get in the way of the story. For this reason, I have mixed feelings about Means's style of storytelling - his best stories are topnotch but others delivered in a too-clever-by-half (IMO) far from conventional narrative style didn't connect with me at all. Therein lies my reservation about the book: sometimes it seems stories are being used to show off Means's writing skills rather than the writing skills serving the narrative flow of the story.
Many of the stories in "Assorted Fire Events" look into the seamy world of the dispossessed, the destitute, the misfits, the disaffected - a menacing subculture of outsiders and discards without a foothold in society, wasted lives led on the edge. I've focussed on four of the strongest (IMO)....
During the depression years, hoboes travelled across the U.S.A. in, on top of, under or between the boxcars of freight trains in futile search of work, often slipping or falling to their death under the wheels from numbing cold, wind, weariness or drifting into sleep. Such is the predicament of the hobo in "The Grip" as the train traverses the night desert..... In "The Interruption", the pivotal moment in the story is where two opposing worlds collide when a hungry hobo desperate for food intrudes into a flash wedding reception.....
In Means's world, violence and death are commonplace. His interest in grotesque violence is witnessed in the extremely violent "Railroad Incident, August 1995" and the harrowing title story "Assorted Fire Events", two full-blooded stories that deliver uncompromising, graphic, gut-wrenching descriptions of violence and death that some may find hard to stomach. "Railroad Incident..." describes the mindless violence inflicted on an injured man limping along railroad tracks when he stumbles on "a bunch of rubbish" - four yobs, while "Assorted Fire Events" illustrates in scorching prose, the destructive power of fire in all its ferocity, in an assortment of conflagrations, some evil in intent - a thug sets a dog on fire, a pyromaniac relishes the sheer thrill of torching houses. Stringent stories introducing the reader to a range of horrors!.
A slim volume of short stories should be an easy read? Not in this case, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing.
The stories all feature death, but not in a romantic fashion. People are bludgeoned, burnt, crushed or die of natural causes. But this is a functional description.
The author's stories aren't written, they are *composed*. The sentences, containing multiple clauses run over several lines and require concentration. This is a book to be read in solitude and considered in the same way. The writing is evocative, stream of conscious stuff. Means writing is flowing and meanders like a stream with several tributaries of sub-stories, almost the way people think when they are not particularly focusing on a topic with the full weight of their intellect.
Don't come here looking for plot, come here to look for characterisation and personality drawn from the vivid description of intimate experiences. He manages to paint a picture of landscapes, mainly in New England it appears, that succeed in creating images in the mind. This is not a 'what happened next' type of fiction - we are immersed in the reality of the characters and their interactions are not starkly described in dramatic fashion but in a similar flowing manner as their settings.
In the same way that all the best operatic storylines are tragic, the author in nearly every chapter describes a death, mainly of a main character. But what I believe he is trying to convey is not a kind of fetish but more the human emotion of loss, a sense that we all carry with us as time forces change.
As I said at the head of this review, these stories appear composed instead of written which is why perhaps some reviewers complain at the style. However if they are read with this in mind then perhaps some will derive pleasure at the vulnerable humanity which the author allows us to observe.
Having read the collection once I do plan to keep it in my library for a quiet autumn day where I can let my mind travel once again into the world this author has created. Like an evocative piece of music, you have to wait for the right moment to re-engage your experience of it.
Firstly, it has to be said that David Means is a great prose stylist. As I read these stories, however, I found myself looking more at the way each was constructed than what they were saying and thinking about the writer more than the people in the stories. I somehow imagine that when he has to give his occupation in forms or on CVs he puts 'writer' with a capital W.
There is a certain 'sameness' to these stories. David Mean, the Writer with a capital W, is present in them all as a cool, detached, ironic, omniscient observer. He knows everyone's thought processes--and boy, do they think even as they die. The settings all convey that grey underbelly of the American Dream. It's clever but not particularly new. Others have been there before him.
These are very masculine stories in the grand American tradition. It knows it's clever and it makes sure the reader knows it too. I like quieter writers, those whose words you inhale effortlessly and which speak to you you through your emotions rather than your intellect.
I don't mind that we only get a fleeting glimpse of people's lives and that the reader is expected to do some of the work filling the gaps. That's no problem for me--as long as the characters are worth the effort. Reading these stories is like those maths exams where you're told you must show your workings or you'll be marked down. I don't want to see the workings. I prefer to lose myself in fiction, however harsh a picture it presents.
Like swallowing medicine, it's good for you but not done with or for pleasure.
The sheer scope of a novel allows authors to develop plots and craft three dimensional characters that can stimulate readers; the short story writer, denied this luxury, needs to be an exquisite artist to achieve audience engagement: David Means embodies this excellence in an astounding first collection of stories.
The title of this work, Assorted Fire Events, alludes to one of the pieces contained, although it can serve as a characterisation of the work as a whole, as many of the stories deal with those significant events in life, often destructive and dramatic, that define who we at that time, and, whatever our intentions, continue to intrude on our existence long after their occurrence. This sense of being imprisoned by the past is most effectively articulated in "Coitus" and "Sleeping Bear Lament", where characters engaged in everyday activities are suddenly hit by memories of traumatic events. In "Coitus" Means' skilful writing is able to establish from the onset a profound sense of unease even before we know anything of the characters or their situation, as he depicts a sex scene with factual detachment. Whilst the initial thought is of a relationship in decline, as the parties' robotic motions deprive the act of any intimacy, Means shows that it is the male characters guilt over two separate events, a past bereavement and betrayal, that leads to the sense of disengagement, although, with Means' subtle writing, the sense of a relationship doomed can be inferred. In the confines of this short piece the reader's curiosity can not be totally satisfied, as a tidy resolution is not forthcoming, but it is a testament to Means' abilities that in the space of 14 pages, the reader is stimulated to trace the permutations of the tale beyond the printed page.
"Sleeping Bear Lament", is a beautiful and moving reflection on a class outcast, Sam. Although set in America, the sense of a school pupil who is treat as pariah because he is impoverished, or in some senses different, is a universal experience that cannot fail to resonate with the reader. In this story the narrator is seeking redemption for some distance misdemeanours committed against the outcast, to try and purge himself of his past, and project this better, fully formed adult onto the present and seek "forgiveness" from Sam. Whilst the sentiments of the narrator can be appreciated, there is a feeling that his efforts will ultimately be futile, and his guilt will never be assuaged.
With the possible exception of "The Grip", an account of a man's pride of his physical endurance, and the comical "What I Hope For", which seems to parody tales of relentless loveliness, the stories are saturated with melancholy, with characters tormented, or confronted, by tragic events. "Railroad Incident, August 1995" is a disturbing depiction of urban brutality, where a once seemingly successful man collides with the dispossessed. "What They Did", is tale of corporate irresponsibility, where the feelings of victims are starkly contrasted with the emotional detachment of business organisations.
In short, this is an exquisite, beautifully crafted collection of stories, which deal with the tragedies and emotions that are a mark of human existence. Means, in economical, but profound, prose is able to establish characters and events that generate empathy, sympathy and sadness. It is no exaggeration to suggest that Means, if he can maintain this standard, should be in the pantheon of great American short story writers.
Mean's Assorted Fire Events is a fierce treat of a book, collecting together his first run of short stories. Adding to Jonathan Franzen's quote on the cover that this collection is "...food for the hungry", I'd wager that Mean's work here is packed like lush petit fores: hugely misleading in their size to taste ratio, tiny forms capable of opening up dense, beguiling black holes of experience upon consumption.
Coming on like an atom-level fusion of John Updike's heroic everyman, tipped with the evocative eye of Truman Capote, all unravelling along the form of Cormac McCarthy, Means works the micro form of the short story like a poet.
Whilst his structure is within convention, Means' content is way beyond, reflecting, riffing and reeling from the ways in which supposed adults don't so much live in the moment, but exist as doomed slaves to memories and irrational associations.
Unpicking timelines, Means traces how the most innocent of events - a stray sound on the breeze, dip in the sun, or change in temperature - can, and often does, trigger potent life-changing situations; proving that the tiniest spark can be far more destructive than the more obvious lively fire.
So, if like me you're not exactly a fan of short stories, set aside your preconceptions and give this one a try, because Means' method is a rare, and intensely beautiful joy to indulge in.
I am a great fan of the short story. I have always felt if you can't tell it in 3,000 words is it really worth the telling.
I was drawn to this collection by the reviews I had read and the fact that he was a writer I had not heard of. I will give anyone one chance.
Mr Means has written a collection of self-consciously gritty tales that may or may not be semi autobiographical ( he certainly appears in Sleeping Bear's Lament). If so his life has been hard and he has found comfort in neither nostalgic reminiscence nor in the act of lovemaking. The "hero" of Coitus revisits a drowning incident while, presumably, hoping to extend the length of his sexual session.
Means certainly has a way with words, some of which are so esoteric I had to look them up!, and he obviously enjoys structuring a sentence though he is no Henry James.
He is a descendent of the tough masculine American writers who must be his main influence e.g. Steinbeck, Heminway, Mailer and yet the writer I was most reminded of was the sublimely gifted Annie Proulx who has made poetic the tough life of the inhabitants far from the city streets.
So, Mr Means, I have given you my one chance and though you have left images in my head ~ ones that I might not normally choose to invite in ~ they are not lasting since they are derivative and have been written up more succunctly by your betters
Two unrelated events affected my reading of this collection:
1. Listening to David Means read a Raymond Carver short story for the excellent New Yorker Fiction podcast in 2010.
2. Starting the collection in a beach house on the British south coast, and losing my copy before I'd finished.
On the first point, Means is somewhat like Carver. To the reviewers who criticised a lack of narrative, I would counter that (superficially) the same can feel true in some of Carver's work. But - like Carver - the texture of Means's writing and the details of the lives he portrays are often revelatory, and it is from these details that his stories propel themselves forward.
The stories I read, however, had more graphic bursts of physical violence, and calculated emotional violence, than anything I can recall in Carver. Reading these stories as I wandered around the desolation of Dungeness (the only technical 'desert' in the UK) had a peculiar resonance.
I can't say if the stories would have affected me so much without that context, and I don't know if the quality of the collection is sustained until the end. But I would recommend this collection if you're a fan of Carver, and I wouldn't try to read it in a single sitting. Take it out into the countryside, by a lake, on an empty beach. Take it in fragments. Take your time with the collection. And try not to lose it!