Strange tales here we come

Paint A Vulgar Picture - Fiction Inspired by The Smiths, edited by Peter Wild, Serpent’s Tail; £8.99

SOME girls are bigger than others and some books are better than others. It was a great idea — get a ten tonne truck-load of writers, some well known, some not so well known, and commission from each a piece ‘inspired’ by a Smiths song.

Now, everybody has a Smiths song that they really love or hate, or both. But composing a worthwhile story, no matter how loosely based, on one of their songs is, unfortunately, a light that never comes on.

In fact, most of these short stories could have been produced by any average post-Leaving Cert creative writing workshop. In short, they’re B-sides, most of them.

Only three of more than 20 made any impression on this reader — Willy Vlautin’s Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before, Catherine O’Flynn’s You’ve Got Everything Now and Helen Walsh’s There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.

The former is from the pen of the Reno, Nevada, singer/songwriter/novelist Vlautin, whose two recent works of fiction, This Motel Life and Northline, should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in modern American literature.

Vlautin can take seemingly ordinary scenarios and turn them into something very extraordinary. With a pared-down though probing descriptive style his stories are usually characterised by bleak urban landscapes and desperate people.

Here we meet a chemical warehouse worker who strikes up a tortured and torrid relationship with a woman he meets in a bar, an expert flirt, a woman who “had an eye worse than a broke hooker”. But you know how these relationships pan out, in fact, you’ve probably heard this one before.

Stories inspired by Smiths’ songs are not going to be full of sunlight and Walsh’s story is another hard case in point. It’s a poignant short about an androgynous teenage prostitute, brilliantly told with every bit as much gritty shock effect as that of Vlautin.

Catherine O’Flynn’s You’ve Got Everything Now is strangely and bitterly redolent of Walsh’s contribution. In her introduction she says: “I’ve tried to write a story that captures the song’s sense of regret and desire, and I’m very sure I didn’t come close.” She’s wrong, she did come close, very close.

Even in those stories that, had they been songs, would probably not have made it past the editing desk without major tweaking and over-dubbing, there can be no denying that the characters are from the same postal address as those which feature in The Smiths’ songs. The scenarios are removed from those in the songs, but that’s as it should be — the last thing anyone needs here are some artful extrapolations on song lyrics which were never intended to be extrapolated.

This collection from Serpent’s Tail is one of a number with similar themes — stories inspired by Sonic Youth, The Ramones, Joy Divison, The Fall and The Velvet Underground are either in the pipeline or out. The publishers might be hoping for a cash-rich franchise of sorts in these books, but not if the standard of writing remains below par.

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