ANGELA MEYER Captives. Reviewed by Michelle McLaren
Angela Meyer’s microfictions expose the shiny bare bones of narrative.
It took me a while to find Captives in the bookshop, but finally I discovered it, a tiny little thing, sitting in a special display of its own. As it turns out, this separation is rather appropriate, because Captives, the fiction debut of literary blogger and writer Angela Meyer, isn’t like other books.
Captives is slightly larger in size than Paul Wilson’s ‘miniature’, The Little Book of Calm – however, if you’re looking for anything calm in these 112 pages, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. The Little Book of Unheimlich would have made a fitting subtitle for Meyer’s collection of 37 captivating microfictions – short works of anything between a single paragraph and a few pages, each bound together by a shared sense of deep disquietude. The front cover promises, tantalisingly: ‘Bad things happen. Or they might. At any moment’, leaving the possibility of disaster hovering like a black cloud above every story.
Many of the ‘bad things’ that happen in Captives are thematically based in the supernatural. In ‘Glitch’ a woman is tormented by the voice of the devil, a static drone that whispers to her through electrical equipment. The dreamlike ‘My Sweetheart Saw a Child’s Face in the Train Window’ begins with a couple disembarking from a train. As they walk across town to their destination, they slowly grow younger, eventually becoming children, ‘with sugar floss for thoughts’. The main character of ‘Portrait of a Suicide’ is a photographer who can ‘capture the desire’ of those longing for death, and in ‘Like Another Time’ a teenage girl meets her boyfriend’s younger brother for the first time (‘he’s a little … touched’, her boyfriend warns her) who can remember his past lives – just as she can.
That’s not to say that all the stories are written in the same key. ‘Nineteen’ takes the reader along on a girls’ night out, and in ‘We Were Always Close’ Meyer introduces us to two sisters, one of whom is keeping a secret from the other. These are everyday stories, elevated by Meyer’s talent for creating compelling characters and tense situations.
Other highlights include ‘Meds’, about a character who is the only one of his friends yet to fill his prescription, despite all the assurances that ‘it doesn’t change you’. It’s deeply disturbing – and, at only four paragraphs long, utterly remarkable. Another is ‘Empty Cradle’, set in old Scotland, in which a woman unable to bear her own children returns from visiting a friend with a new baby. Meyer’s unexpected final sentence comes crashing in from nowhere. It’s just one of the many startling turns of phrase in Captives.
The collection is divided into seven sections, most of which are defined by an opposition – like Up/Down, Off/On, and so on. But there’s another opposition at work in Captives, that between the text and the reader. Reading the book, I soon became aware of just how restrained, how delicately crafted, these 37 microfictions really are. Meyer gives us just enough information for her stories to work, presenting her reader with the shiny, bare bones of her narrative. And that’s it. There’s no explanation, no hand-holding – just story. Readers do the rest of the work, filling in the gaps to create a narrative that’s their own creation. The stories are, like Rorschach’s inkblots, a reflection of their reader. Every time you read Captives, you’ll notice different details. The fictions shift in meaning from one reading to the next.
Meyer wears her influences with pride. In ‘Booklover’s Corner’ George Orwell features as a character, and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is referenced in ‘Only the Strings and Their Supports Remain’. The title of ‘A Cage Went in Search of a Bird’, another of the collection’s many highlights, quotes Franz Kafka’s Blue Octavo Notebooks.
The influence of Kafka on Captives is impossible to miss. Even the book’s illustrations echo Kafka’s art. But, at the same time, the collection is wonderfully innovative – not only in form, but in content, too. In print at least, microfiction is intriguing new territory, and it’s territory Angela Meyer seems to have mastered.
So, Kafkaesque? Yes. But there’s much about Captives that’s quite unlike anything you’ll find in Kafka’s works. To coin a term, Captives is distinctly Meyeresque.
Angela Meyer Captives Inkerman & Blunt 2014 PB 112pp $9.99
Michelle McLaren blogs about books, time travel and nice, hot cups of tea at Book to the Future (www.booktothefuture.com.au).