For the bookish, the similarities are self-evident. If the short story is the literary equivalent of a pop song, crafted for brevity and immediacy, then the themed anthology is like an LP record, affording the space for both the instantly captivating and more experimental work.
David Bowie, of course, was a star at a time when it was less remarkable for a recording artist to talk about books, coming to prominence in a decade of sleeve notes and print interviews, both of which could be pored over as though they were urgent signals from someone waiting in the sky, offering directions as how best to blow one’s mind.
And so he and a new anthology, Waiting for the Gift: Stories Inspired by Low, make for comfortable bedfellows. It seems natural to wonder what he would make of it all
A magpie by nature, it’s easy to picture his wry amusement at the way in which his own life and works have been picked over and pilfered, so that allusions and quotations flit between stories in a manner akin to the lyrics of The Smiths in Douglas Coupland’s novel, Girlfriend In A Coma.
Perhaps, too, he’d be flattered to recognise his reflection in the chameleon-like protagonist of A New Career In A New Town by Adam Marek, a space boy whose helmet has left a familiar “red crease all the way down his forehead and across his cheek”. He might even glimpse the ghost of another role he played through the cracks of Anne Billson’s Subterraneans, in which The Man Who Fell To Earth is apparently brought beneath it.
Departed now himself, the frequency with which these tales are haunted by the unquiet dead would not be lost on him. From the deceased narrator of Wendy Erskine’s Be My Wife to the Dadaist suicide of Art Decade by Melissa Wan, all human death is here.
What the collection inevitably lacks, of course, is the kind of unifying tone that the work of a single artist, even as committed collaborator as Bowie, might give rise to. In this respect, if in no other, Waiting for the Gift more closely resembles a K-Tel compilation rather than Low, one in which tracks destined to be recorded onto blank cassettes as part of a personal greatest hits would be interspersed with those skipped over with distaste. It’s a testament to Richard V. Hirst’s discernment as compiler that there’s little here to urge the stylus from its groove, and rather more to magnetise to one’s heart.
Of the latter selections, Rowan Hisaya Buchanan’s Sound And Vision perhaps best approximates pop’s singular ability to create emotion in the space between the words themselves and the melody underpinning them. The bones of the tale, in which a mother who has lost her child to cot death is visited by electric blue visions, could be dustily prosaic handled less thoughtfully, but, once Margot the protagonist opens herself up to the misplaced dead, the story finds its soul.
The aforementioned Art Decade lets the deceased into a living heart, too. Like Buchanan’s story, it summons its subtle effects from its ambiguities as a young woman, half in love with easeful death, falls for a pre-rock and roll suicide. Its resolution hangs pregnant in the air long after its words have been exhausted.
Preti Taneja, by way of contrast, prises structural expectations apart in the emergency stop of Always Crashing In The Same Car, veering sharply off a road that seems to be heading for a reconciliation mapped out like the directions of a romantic comedy, and leaving its heroine concussed, her illusions, rather than her windscreen, shattered.
Other themed anthologies may have much to recommend them, but this is one compilation which sings. Like dolphins can sing.
Or perhaps that’s another story.
Waiting For The Gift: Stories Inspired By Low is available to buy here