I’m not alone in having looked forward to this collection ever since its jacket image first reared its headless cagoule online last year. David Rose is an unsung hero of contemporary short fiction, so the publication of Posthumous Stories gives us the opportunity to have a singsong.
Rose’s stories always malinger in the imagination, raising more questions than they answer, an effect I first encountered after I’d read Clean from 1998’s Neon Lit collection. Who is this character working for? Who is speaking at the end? Who says, ‘What sort of stupid tosser would kill himself over a dog?’ One reason why Posthumous Stories is an event is because until now Rose’s twenty-five years’ worth of published fiction was dispersed across a plethora of small press publications, many of them defunct or difficult to track down (the acknowledgements page in Posthumous Stories – with its Zemblas and Black Biles, its Iron and Rue Bellas – reads like an atlas of the small-press/short-story archipelago).
I’ve lost my copy of Neon Lit Vol. II, so finding Clean again here was – another – thrill. Again: the grip of the storytelling. I don’t remember (m)any of the stories I read in 1998, let alone where I was when I read them (the house with the mannequin, a street off the Unthank Road, early morning: a workman was using a whirring-blade machine to grind down part of the kerb. The horrible noise shuddered me awake. It was only when it started to rain torrentially that he packed it in, allowing me to read for a while, read Clean). I remembered the story, but not the author’s name, not even when I came across David Rose again by way of his metafictional wonder Vault: An Anti-Novel. There are, though, two previously unpublished stories here, The Fall and The Castle, both of which seem stages on the way to Vault.
Rose’s precise and vocal prose is often remarked upon and is certainly a draw, but there’s much more to these stories than style and language games (Rose favours OuLiPian linguistic strategies and formal tourniquets in the structuring of his stories; for instance, each section of his The Castle uses the same sentences as the chapter openers in Kafka’s). After reading the stories collected here and others, I have difficulty defining exactly the leitmotifs of Rose’s work, though I always know one when I see one. As John Peel once said of The Fall (the gruppe, not the Camus novel or the David Rose story) they’re ‘always different, always the same.’ The stories are always cunning and vocal, full of pathos and absurdity and frequently feature a personality in thrall to some mysterious, maybe damning obsession.
Also, the stories are often unexpectedly funny. Rose can be partial to what Martin Amis, writing about Anthony Burgess, called the ‘garlicky pun’. In Rectilinear, in which an architect strives to create the perfect modernist home, the narrator describes his eventual wife as ‘Viennese, liberated, a thoroughly Loos woman.’ In Home, a recent arrival explains how Londoners often ask if he makes wigs when he says he’s a rugmaker (he works in the carpet trade). I don’t know why this makes me laugh but it does. It’s certainly the reaction our rugmaker would get in Sutton. Incidentally, it’s refreshing to say the least that the stories are often set in outer London and the Home Counties, ground I consider under-explored.
Another hallmark is formal adventure. Rose seems incapable of writing a story straight and splices the traditional short story with the formats of other documents. The first story here, Dedication starts midsentence, midway through a radio interview. It’s as if we’ve just switched on the set as a certain Stevie is being asked about his reaction to the first performance of a dead composer’s concerto that was dedicated to him. It then goes on to provide a compelling description of the memory-spurring effects of music, the writing seamlessly moving from a catechism to stream-of-consciousness. The interview as a structure is also used in Home. Viyborg – A Novel is written as a synopsis of a novel. Tragos imagines the death of Raoul Moat from the point of view of townspeople used like a Greek chorus. The charming The Fifth Beatle is told monologue fashion by a cleaning lady who witnessed the Abbey Road photo-shoot but is shot-through by a second poetic narrative strand that recounts the same event from an entirely different, oblique perspective. Nothing is solid in these stories, however much the characters may wish for permanence and clarity. These devices never seem gimmicky. They open up new spaces for the short form, which can seem too in thrall to Carver’s minimalism or Angela Carter’s fabulation (in my experience as student and teacher).
Like many a committed short-story writer, Rose is able to encapsulate or imply an entire life story in a few pages. However, what’s most prevalent here is the articulation of the inner life. Many of these characters are obsessives, driven either by a bizarre personal quest (to correct the imperfections perceived in the work of the Viennese architect Adolf Loos, for example, or gain entrance to Royal society in The Castle), or by the order of some undisclosed subversive organization (The Fall, Clean). Rose’s characters nearly always speak directly to the reader, and are often unnamed. This has the sometimes-unnerving effect of offering a confidence we may not wish to accept. What is the narrator of Flora (one of the most memorable stories here) after when he invites a botanical artist to share his space and his books? Who is he? Who is she? Who exploits whom here? How does he live? What else has happened in his life? Who is throwing stones through the narrator’s window in In Evening Soft Light? And why? Why does he have no inkling as to why they might hate him? Why is he so passive? Who is the elderly gent in Shuffle, cataloguing his attempts to read the literary canon in the same way he catalogues his visits to east European prostitutes? The shearing away of biographical context makes these characters ineffably strange yet unsettlingly human, ‘distorted, shrinking, looming as they move,’ as the asphalt layers in A Nice Bucket are described at the end of that story. Far from Posthumous, these are stories that live on, daring us to dwell on the mystery of personality and the stories and versions we tell ourselves, that we cling to, that, unlike the characters assembled here, we lack the composure to tell. Rose is a master mason of form and a virtuoso composer of voices. I can’t think of a more able commentator upon who we are and how we live now.
Posthumous Stories is published by Salt. You can buy it here.
Posthumous Stories isn’t the complete David Rose. I’d also recommend Sere in Still (Negative Press); Puck (Nightjar Press); Brontesaurus in Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontes, edited by AJ Ashworth (Unthank Books); Eleanor: The End Notes and Terra Cotta in Unthology 3 (Unthank Books) and Vault: An Anti-Novel (Salt).