We Were Strangers: Stories Inspired by Unknown Pleasures edited by Richard Hirst. (Confingo, £12.99)
The short time that falls between the end and start of the Northern bands, Joy Division and New Order, splits the new city region from the old. Joy Division, through Ian Curtis, are connected to the declining areas of de-industrialisation with links to Macclesfield, Oldham, Salford, and Stockport. Their elective affinities are with the industrial music of Can and Neu! It is appropriate that the cover of the anthology by Zoe McClean echoes that of Faust’s monochrome album, “Faust,” by Bridget Riley, as well as “Unknown Pleasures” itself.
New Order come from a world of sand-blasted stone, glass and concrete that aspires to the status of a megacity and takes much of its inspiration from the dance electronica of the archetypal megacity, New York. They are the Arena band to Joy Division’s Electric Circus, Collyhurst.
Confingo publications and its anthology, “We Were Strangers,” a homage to Joy Division’s first album, “Unknown Pleasures,” are evidence of the resurgence of Manchester publishing. Confingo’s writing can be added to the work of Carcanet and Comma press as a publisher of literary quality, reaching readers and writers from the area and beyond.
Richard Hirst, the editor of the anthology, has collected a wide range of diverse stories from familiar and up and coming writers. Hirst is a prize winning short story writer himself, features in several cutting edge writing anthologies, and is an occasional contributor of fiction and non-fiction to The Guardian and The Big Issue.
Nick Royle’s opening story is the nearest to Joy Division. Using the techniques of Oulipo and William Burroughs he has created a remarkable work. This is far more than a word game. The original words of Joy Division’s album are re-arranged in terms of parts of speech, so that the whole work conveys the dark, despairing anti-epiphanies that run through Ian Curtis’s songs.
At a recent reading at Waterstones, Manchester, Royle explained how difficult it was re-ordering the words into a coherent narrative, using the same words and the same number of words as the original. The dead ends and inexplicabilities, the sense of the foreboding hints at both Kafka and Beckett and, of course, the death of Ian Curtis himself:
“I’ve talked for too long. But I’ve said it all. I have to live. Until there are no
sensations anymore. Until the end.”
If Royle’s story leads into a Curtisian elsewhere that is both familiar and remote, there are other stories that hop between the real and surreal. Take David Gaffney’s story, inspired by a trip to Curtis’s last place, Macclesfield. It moves from someone wanting to buy a garage to someone wanting to buy empty spaces freed of clutter, the opposite of most garages, with dialogue and comic timing that would do credit to Ivor Cutler.
It is difficult to know if Gaffney’s story is a parable of capital accumulation, the metaphorical emptiness of property, or is it just great fun. All that is solid does seem to melt into air in this story.
Another established writer, Toby Litt introduces multiple Prousts in space in a story which could stand along stories in his debut collection, “Adventures in Capitalism” Again the dialogue is as pitch perfect as a Vinteuil sonata. His Prousts are as good as his Moriarty and Holmes from the earlier collection.
If the anthology has several examples of elsewhere, it also has examples of somewhere. Newly published, Louise Marr, creates a finely observed story of office life as a new starter, a bright new world surrounded by the darkness of the natural world. Jenn Ashworth, too, observes the squalid with analytical precision.
There is also a glimpse of the macabre in Jessie Greengrass’s fiction creates an industrial dystopia. To add to the range Zoe McClean creates a graphic narrative that reflects on the prophetic aspects of Ian Curtis’s words and his death-in-life, life-in-death.
What many of the stories share is an unrelenting cold eye, for example, on epilepsy and how it impacts on ordinary life in Zoe Lambert’s story. We are seeing parts of the world that Ian Curtis may have seen in the moments when he lost control.
Nick Royle’s is the most experimental story but here are other experimenters abroad. Sophie Macckintosh uses the notoriously difficult second person voice to explore a process of flight from the past. There is also another flight, this time of balloons. Eley William’s story borders on the magical and transfigurative:
“And a lion and a taut ballon-man and hard glosser-over raised their hands to their
brows and, just for a second, together watched a brawling, tight-lipped display of
animals grow smaller and smaller above their heads, disappearing like prayers
amid the ants and messing up a great, grey, blank sky.”
The final story of the collection, “ I Remember Nothing,” returns to the macabre and blood-splattered with disturbing intensity.
The anthology is worth a place on the shelves of Manchester music with Mark E Smith’s “Renegade,” Peter Hook’s “Unknown Pleasures,” and Deborah Curtis’s “Touching from a Distance.” It is an example of the necessity of influence. Could a Confingo anthology be an annual or bi-annual production? I hope so. It would help to fill the UK’s short list of short fiction publishers.