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Review - "Why Are You Here" by Simon Collings

Mark Russell

Mark Russell: Review of ‘Why Are You Here?’ by Simon Collings (The Fortnightly Review, 2021)

William Carlos Williams once wrote to his friend, the poet Kenneth Burke, reflecting upon one of their topics of conversation: “I woke in the night with a half-sentence on my metaphorical lips: ‘the limitations of form.’ It seemed to mean something of importance.” It’s a topic that seems never to have lost its intrigue.

This is especially true of concise literature that defies a single classification. It is sometimes the ‘prose poem’. At other times it might be ‘poetry in prose’, or ‘short fiction’, or ‘short short fiction’, or ‘flash fiction’.

Whatever labels we give them, these concisions are form-busting pieces of work that seem to be forever labelled ‘new’, as if they have been at the vanguard of some perpetual revolution that nobody really understands.

Simon Collings’s new collection, ‘Why Are You Here?’ adds to the list of terms. It is subtitled: ‘Very Brief Fictions’, and very welcome these brief fictions are. Published by The Fortnightly Review in their ‘Odd Volumes’ series, there is something odd, touching, mysterious, funny, and enduring about these fragments and imaginations.

An office worker returns to work from a four-hour drive up country in ‘Other Lives (2)’. There, he finds a party going on, the place redecorated and unrecognisable, he himself mistaken for ‘one of the performers’. He too, has become unrecognisable.  

Collings’s fictions trip us up with their surface normalities, they stir our 21st century anxieties. A woman finds a flyer in her bicycle basket. It exhorts her: ‘Don’t Give Up’. She convinces herself to phone the number on the flyer where she is left hanging. ‘She listened to the message several times more. Maybe it was some kind of endurance test. She looked at the leaflet again, wondering what she should do. ‘Don’t give up,’ the automated voice said.’

Dreams, or dream-like states, recur throughout the collection. Somebody ‘comes to’ and realises they are naked in a public place. They conceal their nakedness by losing themselves in the crowd, and make their way slowly to their hotel. ‘I could see up ahead a neon sign with the name of my hotel on it, though I didn’t remember the hotel being on this street. Perhaps there were two hotels with the same name’ (‘The Hotel’). In ’Landslide’, people repeatedly gather at the site of a regular landslip to take part in ‘fortune hunting’: ‘Of course they won’t find anything. They never do, though they keep coming back.’

In Collings’s work, life is altered and alterable: ‘meaning wanders off on its own past the familiar landmarks’ (‘Going Up). The reader is never quite sure where to place themselves, what they are looking at, what they are hearing. A little girl dressed as a fish throws beer cans into a river (‘Wildlife Hot Spot’); a dyspeptic Erik Satie writes a cantankerous letter from beyond the grave claiming to be neither dyspeptic nor cantankerous (‘Delivered By Hand’); a homeless man sleeping by the Seine is mistaken for an ‘Objet D’Art’.

Woolf once said the short story must be inconclusive if it is to be honest, to provoke questions rather than to tie up its loose ends. The ‘very brief fictions’ of Simon Collings’s ‘Why Are You Here?’ do just that, with a canny wit and an admirable deftness of touch. 


Copyright © Mark Russell, 2021

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