OK, let's start this properly with a statement of prejudices (or lack thereof, depending on how you look at it). Before Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical came through my letterbox, I'd never heard of Robert Shearman in anything more than passing. Furthermore, I predominantly read science fiction of various stripes—not because I have any animus against other genres, but because there's more than enough of the stuff I prefer to keep me busy. As such, I have little experience with weird and whimsical slipstreamish stories like those contained here: Robert Shearman's work and the field he operates in are, for me, terra nova. You might say that gives me the fresh perspective of the first-time tourist; then again, you might say it makes me ignorant of the local customs. The truth is most likely a synthesis of the two.
As the title suggests, what we have here is collection of short stories on the theme of love. I'm not afraid to admit I didn't have great hopes for liking it, either; I've never been a great romantic (except, very arguably, in the more philosophical capital-R sense of the term), and my reading it coincided with what is probably best glossed over as an unexpected and severe change in the status of my personal life with respect to matters of romance. Or, to put it another way: I read Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical while nursing a large crack in what passes for my heart, and hence I can't be sure whether I'd have cried quite so many times while reading it had the circumstances been different. However, I can say with certainty that Shearman has a harpist's hand on the heartstrings, even though the tunes are unfamiliar.
Let's be plain: Robert Shearman does not write love stories that Mills & Boon would publish. Frankly, I'm not sure who outside of of the ill-defined ghetto of SF/F/H (or whatever we're calling it this month) would publish tales like these—not because they're bad (which they're certainly not), but because they turn traditional expectations of what a love story should do upside down, often with the deft use of plot twists that wouldn't make sense to readers unaccustomed to genre's love of the wilfully weird.
That said, the book is packed with people who might have been lifted from a particularly poignant issue of Bella. In that respect it's a very Middle England, Anglocentric, and heteronormative collection, and delivered in plain, simple language to an extent that initially felt disingenuous, as if Shearman was setting out to mock love and the common fools who find themselves falling into it, longing for it, or riding roughshod over it. Shearman's protagonists are defined by their ordinariness, the ultimate people-next-door, but just as soon as he's gotten your sympathy for them (which happens quickly), their emotional or attitudinal flaw is introduced and you form a value judgement of the characters, closely accompanied by an idea of what their just desserts should be.
You're also likely to completely change that assessment halfway through the tale, maybe start rooting for (or pitying) one of the other characters as compensation . . . and then change it again, and again, maybe a number of times. You'll soon learn to look for the pivot point of almost every story, too—the moment where Shearman effortlessly picks up his characters (and you, by extension) like an hourglass, upending the world and inverting your expectations of where the story was going. In that respect, there's something deeply formulaic about the tales in Love Songs, a recurring technique that I learned to watch out for with half an eye—not so much a plot twist as a plot fold, perhaps, or maybe even a plot flip.
Some of Shearman's inversions are of your expectations of story, playing on established clichés to great effect. For instance, "At the Crease" is about a parent trying to live out their own failures through their child, in the hope that not only will the child capture the dream they failed to grasp, but that the child's success might pass on some of that joy back to them, and fill the hole. This is, of course, a plot familiar from countless soaps and movies . . . but there's no happy ending here for the bitter failed cricketer or his narrator son who, in the process of rejecting everything his father wanted him to be, becomes him almost completely. It's a sad story, something like a longer and more subtle version of Philip Larkin's "This Be The Verse," but all the more powerful for its deep ring of truth, a tone that Hollywood and television have never found the bandwidth (or maybe the guts) to broadcast successfully.
Characters are frequently upended, as well, or initiated as an inversion of an established stereotype . . . sometimes both. In "Jolly Roger," Shearman inverts the sexual predator to make her female and advanced in age, and then inverts the protagonist's widower/victim status by having him behave like an arse in the aftermath of bungled passion. Throw in some over-the-top towel origami (yes, really), open the Freudian valve to full bore, and it's a rollercoaster ride of queasy emotions until the faintly redemptive ending.
Or how about a new take on the emotional vampirism trope—about love as a force that can harm someone, quite literally? In "Be Of Good Cheer," the narrator falls in love with a girl whose rare medical condition means she can only be happy in the presence of the misery of others; to witness happiness gives her terrible physical pain. Here again, though, we find the reversal to which Shearman returns so often, where the line between abuser and abused starts off clearly defined before flip-flopping around in a flurry of postmodern ethical uncertainty. It's not that we don't know what's wrong in this story; it's that we can't really declare anyone entirely blameless, anyone entirely guilty. Love makes us do terrible things sometimes, but it also makes us justify them to ourselves in incredibly elaborate ways.
Another common Shearman trick is the concretized metaphor—love comes to be embodied as a physical and almost living thing, often unpleasant (like the misshapen bat-rabbit hybrid in "Roadkill," or the diseased and disembodied heart in "Pang") or unwanted (like the kitten in "This Creeping Thing"). This embodiment ties in with the central project of Love Songs, which I think is an attempt to define love, to explain it, describe it, to determine how it works and why it does such wonderful, awful things to us. Such a project is doomed from the outset, but I suspect that's quite clear to Shearman; in fact, the inevitability of that failure may have been part of the project's appeal, as it so mirrors the nature of its subject. You can't understand love . . . so maybe the best you can do is document the way in which trying to understand love has the tendency to damage, warp, or destroy it.
Shearman's characters question love's nature and effects perpetually, and through them he can try out various theories to see how they fit. In "14.2," for instance, he imagines a medical procedure—rather like an uncomfortable and invasive emotional CAT scan—that can reveal just what percentage of your total capacity for love is devoted to each object thereof . . . and to one decimal place of accuracy, no less! A laughable premise on the surface, perhaps—but think for a moment of how often we describe love as something finite, something measurable, something that can run out or be replenished, be shared or stolen or lost or locked away. Perhaps, Shearman seems to be suggesting, love is rather like Heisenberg's uncertain electron, altered by our observation of it: a fundamental mystery whose effects we can see, but whose workings we can, even at best, only infer.
Love also has a tendency to crop up in situations where you'd least expect it to, and Shearman uses the sense of the inappropriate to great effect. "George Clooney's Moustache" is an unsettling but poignant story in which Stockholm Syndrome provides a ransom kidnapper with much more than he bargained for. I's also one of the few tales in which the just desserts are served cold, but you're still left with a surprising amount of sympathy for the devil. In "Luxembourg," meanwhile, the titular country vanishes (albeit offstage), leaving the housewife protagonist believing herself widowed, only to discover a new life of unrestrained passion with her husband's (already married) brother. The revelation of Luxembourg's real fate leads to the revelation that the husband wasn't dead at all, and things move away from querulous and guilty indulgence in a social taboo, toward one of the faintly redemptive bittersweet endings that characterise so many of these stories.
Metafiction makes a modest showing in Love Songs, and makes it clear that Shearman doesn't consider himself to be any more perfect or cognizant of love's nature than the rest of us. Take the collection's title story, in which the author of an obscure book of literary short stories entitled Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical takes his father to an awards ceremony, where he conspicuously doesn't win an award that he'd nearly convinced himself he wasn't interested in winning anyway. He makes an embarrassment of himself, while his father ends up taking home a different prize entirely. Quite a few of Shearman's characters are writers or other creative types, and the love that drives the creative impulse is shown to be as inexplicable and irrational as all the other sorts, and just as likely to drive one to selfishness and the breaking of hearts as any affair. But here again is that sense of redemption, the underlying suggestion that even a bad love is a true thing, that they make us human, and that sometimes—and sometimes too late—our loved ones can come to understand the loves we have for other things. There's a little untitled story hidden on the inner surface of the dust jacket about a writer's wife who discovers, after he dies, that his love for books had his love for her embedded within it. It ends with the image of the widow sitting down to read a roomful of books that she had hitherto ignored completely, and it's the most beautiful and painful moment in the entire book, at least for my money.
Love Songs is cleverly constructed, but with a risky gamble—Shearman initially comes across as deeply cynical about love (and, indeed, about people in general), but as you move through the stories you realise that what you're reading isn't cynicism at all. Instead, it's a fascination with tracing the shape and parameters of the most ill-defined word in the English language, a fascination with the way that—considered as a term of anything other than art, and maybe even then—it's essentially meaningless until two people are involved in acting out its meaning, at which point the meanings begin to multiply and expand in contradictory complexity, often in disparate directions. And the one universal certainty of love bobs up to the surface of the stories over and over again, as if freshly discovered every time, washed up on the cold pebble beach of experience: that sometimes when you get the thing you really really wanted, it turns out to be something utterly different from what you saw it as. Sometimes that's a good thing; other times, not so much.
But it's all here: every guilty rationalisation, every twinge of doubt, fear or selfishness; the horror of loneliness, the penury and confinement of unwanted or undeserved affection; every hard simple word, every inner shrug, every act of cold emotional calculus, every impassioned misassessment of love, whether of its quantity or quality . . . they're all here, laid out like a litany of your personal failings, made or avoided, then peppered with those bright shining moments when your heart worked like they do in the movies and made you bigger than yourself, bigger than the world, alive, in love. Shearman may not have come to any simple conclusion as to what love is, but that's no surprise—it's one of the defining questions of human existence, and I suspect we'll never answer it. But Shearman sure knows love when he feels it, he can make you feel it too, in all its jagged and slippery glory. Read Love Songs for the Shy And Cynical carefully enough, and maybe it won't cut you too deeply.
Paul Graham Raven is a freelance writer, editor, publicist, and web-presence manager to busy independent creatives, and PR guy for PS Publishing, the UK's foremost boutique genre press. He's also ed-in-chief of near-future SF webzine Futurismic, a learning fictioneer and poet, a reviewer of books, music and concerts, a cack-handed third guitarist for a fuzz-rock band, and in need of a proper haircut.