In the penultimate story of Helen Oyeyemi's new short story collection, "freddy barrandov checks . . . in?," the first thing we learn about the titular character is that he considers himself to be "an inadequate son":
I didn't really notice this until I reached the age my father had been when he was imprisoned for repairing the broken faces of clock towers without authorisation . . . Fixing the mechanisms seemed political, though it was impossible to agree on the exact meaning of the gesture. (p. 224)
So there's a vaguely Orwellian hinterland to this story, then. Having learned about Freddy senior's sympathy for broken timepieces, we pass in the next paragraph to the subject of Freddy junior's mother, who is in charge of a government-sponsored literary award that the writers in contention seem reluctant to win. Which leaves Freddy's mother in a cynical frame of mind about writers generally:
Even though all went on as before, Mum's developed a sort of prejudice against writers; there are behaviours she now calls 'writerly', but I think she actually means uncooperative. (p. 225)
Back to Freddy's dad, who serves his three-year prison sentence and then takes up a position as Chief Maintenance Officer at the Hotel Glissando, where Freddy's mother heads up the management. There's an expectation on Freddy, he informs us, that he'll follow in his father's footsteps and join the maintenance team. When Freddy's mother asks him where he sees himself in ten years' time, his reply is probably not the one she has been hoping for:
I spoke of the past instead of the future: a past, it turned out, I had neither lived for myself nor been told about. I remembered a town that read 'Rebel Town' but not in English. I remembered people striding around with cutlasses, and a nursemaid who was a tiger—her lullabies were purred softly, and the melodies clicked when they caught against her teeth: sleep for a little while now, little one, or sleep forever . . .
"That was my childhood not yours," my mother snapped. (p. 227)
Freddy contests that his more practical sister Odette would be a much better match for the maintenance team and that he'd rather stay on in his job as a nursery school teacher. Freddy then goes off to his sister's to discuss the situation and they end up talking all night. Whereby we learn a little more about the Hotel Glissando:
Discretion is its main feature: you go there to hide. The furnishings are a mixture of dark reds and deep purples. Moving through the lobby is like crushing grapes and plums and being bathed in the resultant wine. There are three telephone booths in the lobby. Their numbers are automatically withheld and they're mainly used for lies. (pp. 228-9)
Freddy's account then spirals off into an anecdote about a man he once saw staggering into one of the telephone cubicles with a steak knife sticking out of his chest and blood pouring from the wound. The man makes a telephone call to explain he's working late and then calls for his own ambulance. Another guest at the hotel believes he is being pursued by a burrowing entity that makes its home beneath any building he happens to be residing in. The Glissando's management assures the guest he will be safe with them, as no guest at the Glissando can be denied anything, anything at all, unless they ask for an iguana skin wallet, in which case their request will be denied without further discussion.
Freddy continues to argue with Odette over the pros and cons of following his parents into the hotel business, only we don't have time to get involved in that because two pages later Freddy is off on a new tack, telling us about how he met his current girlfriend Aisha, a young filmmaker who lives in the same building as he does, and who we have the feeling we might have met in an earlier story. By now you will probably be able to predict that Freddy's account of the meeting will be convoluted and discursive, segueing into a meditation on exactly why it might be that Aisha has thus far refused to consummate their relationship. Could it be because Freddy lacks ambition? Or could it be, as Freddy's friend Pierre suggests, that Aisha "just doesn't want dick" (p. 235). Not entirely convinced by this argument, Freddy then offers us a beautiful and far-reaching metaphor on the nature of lust:
It may be that lust is a breathtaking traitor, the warden's daughter seen in the walled city at all hours of the night singing softly and teasing the air with a starlit swan's feather. Lust, the warden's daughter, a little feckless, perhaps, but not a one to cause injury until the day her telescope shows her that troops are marching on the walled city. When darkness falls she slips through the sleeping streets, meets the foe at the city gates and throws those gates wide open: take and use everything you want and burn the rest to the ground . . .
. . . When it is all over, no observer is able to settle on a reason for this brat's betrayal, illogical or otherwise. (pp. 235-6)
Freddy is now spending so much time hanging around the lobby of the Glissando that he doesn't have time to go to work. He tries his hand at petty thievery but can't be bothered to sell the items he steals. He tells us about one of Aisha's films instead, some intrigue concerning Cold War spies in St Petersburg and snipers and tea that never really goes anywhere. When Freddy asks Aisha if the film is meant as a commentary on the dictatorship of the written word, Aisha says no, it's a puppet show. The part-human puppets who star in it will also be vaguely familiar to us from an earlier story. While watching this film on his phone in the lobby of the Hotel Glissando, Freddy runs into a man he doesn't recognise at first but who certainly recognises him and who turns out to be his godfather Jean-Claude. Jean-Claude has been living at the Glissando for years. He can't check out, it seems—no one who signs the residency contract can: ". . . wherever else you go, you must and will always return to your room" (p. 241).
In the course of conversation, Jean-Claude lets slip that his son is the famous movie actor Chedorlaomer Nachor, who (like the puppets) we met in an earlier story and who also happens to be starring in Aisha's film. It emerges (in a roundabout way) that Ched has become romantically involved with Tyche Shaw, one of the film's other actors—who coincidentally also plays an important role in an earlier (and different) story. Jean-Claude believes that this woman is a bad match for his son, and offers Freddy a large sum of money if he can get her away from him.
The story continues for another five pages. Freddy cooks up a plan to try and convince Ched and Tyche that they are brother and sister. We never find out if he succeeds or not, or why Jean-Claude was so determined that the couple separate in the first place. The nagging question is: do we actually care?
"freddy barrandov checks . . . in?" is twenty-four pages long in all. I've discussed it at length here because I wanted to give a practical demonstration of the meandering, seemingly ad hoc nature of the stories that make up this collection. As one of the shorter examples, this particular story seemed the most appropriate for the purpose; proceed much further down this road and the review might run out of control, both in terms of wordage and overall Oyeyemi fatigue. Also I wanted to highlight the haunting and visual lust metaphor. That being said, "freddy barrandov checks . . . in?" is at one with the collection as a whole in being fickle, unfocussed, discursive to a fault, and whimsical to a degree that on the whole I found annoying rather than charming.
On page 184 of What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, one of the characters in "a brief history of the homely wench society" learns that the word "bigarrure" means both "a medley of sundry colours running together" and "a discourse running oddly and fantastically from one matter to another." Which is Oyeyemi describing her own endeavour, pretty much, and thus turning aside accusations of "lack of direction" or of having written "itsy-bitsy stories that don't ever cohere" before such accusations even arrive. None of this should surprise us. Helen Oyeyemi is a writer of keen intelligence and rare imaginative gifts. She knows exactly what she's doing, and no element of this remarkable collection is here by chance. Whether everyone who picks up the book will go along with its overweening idiosyncrasy is open to question, but the same could be said of any artwork that dares to push boundaries.
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours swarms with life, with linguistic invention, with a variety of themes both social and literary. Many passages manage to address multiple concerns at once, virtuosic in their deployment of language and succinctly amusing in their acuity of social comment. The whole of "a brief history of the homely wench society," for example, functions as an adroit and amusing takedown of such antiquated hotbeds of privilege and patriarchy as Oxford's Bullingdon Club (or the Piers Gaveston Society, the august association that spawned #piggate):
If you've heard of the Bettencourters you may already know the following facts: no woman enters this building unless a member of the Bettencourt Society has invited her, and no Bettencourt Society member invites a woman into the building unless it's for this annual dinner of theirs. And getting invited to the dinner is dependent on your being considered exceptionally attractive. (p. 178)
Equally, "if a book is locked there's probably a good reason for that, don't you think?" is a concise and blackly humorous portrayal of office politics and workplace bullying:
A quiet woman with a locked book. Eva's beginning to intrigue you. She returns to her desk and continues working. Everybody else returns to their desks to send each other emails about Eva . . . At least that's what you presume is happening. You're not copied into any of these emails but everybody except you and Eva seems to be receiving a higher volume of messages than normal. You look at Eva from time to time and the whites of her eyes have turned pink but she doesn't look back at you or stop working. Fax, fax, photocopy. She answers a few phone calls and her tone is on the pleasant side of professional. (p. 256)
The collection is stuffed with wry observations about gender and sexual stereotyping—indeed, the fluid nature of gender and shifting societal attitudes to the way gender is perceived form a substantial component of these stories' common subject matter. In "is your blood as red as this?" the puppets' approach to gender and sexuality is as flexible and unfettered as that of their human counterparts:
The problem with Wayland is that he's a puppet built to human scale. Masterless and entirely alive. No matter how soft his skin appears to be, he is entirely wooden, and it is not known exactly what animates him—no clock ticks in his chest. Rowan is male to me, since he moves and speaks with a grace that reminds me of the boys and men of my Venetian youth. He's female to Myrna. For Radha and Gustav, Rowan is both male and female. Perhaps we read him along the lines of our attractions, perhaps it really is as arbitrary as that. (p. 105)
In "sorry doesn't sweeten her tea"—the story from this collection I found most affecting—a mega-famous pop icon is discovered to be a dangerous and mendacious abuser. The story exposes the double standard that often exists around celebrity and it is impossible to read it today without thinking of other, similarly obscene iniquities uncovered within our own real-world media corporations:
She'd hit back, she said, even from her place at his feet she'd hit back, but every time, he hit harder. Then he stood over her in all his wealth and fame and arrogance and shrugged when she said she wasn't going to keep quiet about this. Matyas Füst had shrugged and asked her if she thought anybody was going to give a shit that someone like her had got hurt. A nameless junkie with seriously crazy English. Look at you, he said. And look at me. (p. 60)
Important themes, then, often couched in language and imagery that is all the more shocking for the low-key, by-the-by manner of its presentation. And whilst normally I would be a devoted advocate for stories such as these that deliberately flout over-familiar MFA conventions—telling for all they're worth, flipping carelessly and with no apparent thought for narrative structure from one subject, memory, or observation to another—in the case of What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours I found the hyperactive illogic, the pretty fabulism, the gosh-wow craziness of everything a reminder, more than anything, of how maddeningly mannered and tedious magic realism can be.
This collection is as rich and strange as any you are likely to find. It seethes with invention and originality, and yet I came away from it confounded by how little these stories affected me on any level other than the merely cerebral. My mind was left cluttered with images and metaphors, and yet I seemed unable to remember a single one of the stories distinctly, set apart from the bigarrure of its fellows. Each story is about many things—yet none of them are truly about anything. Each contains a kernel of outrageous beauty or glorious transgression—the guerrilla book swap in "a brief history of the homely wench society," the audacious lie told by Freddy about Ched and Tyche in "freddy barrandov checks . . . in?," the bizarre act of deception perpetrated by the grandmother against the wolf-beast in "dornicka and the st martin's day goose"—which renders these tales exhilarating in their bombast and totally unlike any other story you might read on any given day. Yet for me at least they felt lacking in any emotional resonance whatsoever. There are several leitmotifs—keys, roses, puppets—running through the core of this collection that serve as loose thematic binders, but their importance feels circumstantial rather than being freighted with any deep meaning, and the same might easily be said of the recurrence of various characters from one story to another. These are stories that never stay still, which is perhaps the reason they never acquire any meaningful depth.
I admire this book a great deal, but I don't really like it much, and I say this as someone who counts Oyeyemi among her favourite authors. It's not her, it's me. Your mileage may vary.
Nina Allan’s stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best Horror of the Year #6, The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2013, and The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women. Her novella Spin, a science fictional re-imagining of the Arachne myth, won the BSFA Award in 2014, and her story cycle The Silver Wind was awarded the Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire in the same year. Her debut novel The Race was a finalist for the 2015 BSFA Award, the Kitschies Red Tentacle, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Nina lives and works in North Devon. Find her blog, The Spider’s House, at www.ninaallan.co.uk.