REVIEW by Jonathan Edwards

NWR Issue r4

We Don’t Know What We’re Doing

by Thomas Morris

Thomas Morris’ We Don’t Know What We’re Doing is a collection of short stories set in the author’s native Caerphilly. In its subject matter of small town life and its eccentricities, its cumulative celebration of a community, it belongs on a shelf alongside Under Milk Wood and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. What’s most exciting is that this is a collection with the literary sophistication, ambition and variety of approach to justify those comparisons. The publication of this debut volume is I think a very exciting moment for literature in Wales.

One of the key features of Morris’ technique is a zany humour, an art with the non sequitur which might remind us of the work of Denis Johnson, and which replicates wonderfully the arbitrariness of real life. At the same time, one is aware of the artful crafting of these stories, the way in which each apparently meaningless detail contributes to the whole. In ‘Fugue’, for example – which focuses partly on the relationship between the central character and her parents – her boyfriend, we are told, is ‘working as the sound man on a documentary series about a housing estate in Glasgow. There are three episodes… each one focused on a different family.’ ‘Castle View’, about a teacher, works through motifs of looking – the protagonist cutting ‘pictures of smiling men and women’ out of magazines to prepare an educational resource, or watching porn on his phone while his wife is out – leading to a conclusion in which he looks in at his kitchen from the garden and ‘it seems like he’s looking at someone else’s home.’ Raymond Carver’s wonderful story ‘Viewfinder’ seems to be an influence here, but it is the way Morris has digested such influences to create his own fictional world, balancing art and authenticity, which is so impressive.

The book is also a riot to read, as the author’s comic vision leads to some wonderful set pieces. In ‘Big Pit’, the protagonist’s unpredictable sister brings home a Japanese exchange student called Sumiko, a girl who ‘was pretty and delicate-looking, as if she’d been drawn with a thin-nib pencil,’ and the story finds the three of them down the mine in Blaenavon. And ‘17’ is about a boy who tries to get over an ex-girlfriend by arranging ‘a town wrestling contest where I fought women and only women. On a big patch of grass beside Caerphilly Castle I assembled a makeshift wrestling ring, and each Saturday would charge £1.50 for a female to wrestle me.’

If We Don’t Know What We’re Doing is comic, though, Morris shows himself able to deal with a breadth of emotional experience. This is a first collection, and yet we’re treated to a master class in the variety of approaches to the short story. Here’s a story written in the second person. Here’s a story in chapters. Here’s a story with a happy ending. Here’s a story that’s sad. ‘Nos Da’, which is my own least liked in the collection, but does show the author’s range, shrugs off the realist focus of the book to imagine an afterlife, focusing on characters who have already died. The majority of stories are about the young but ‘Strange Traffic’, my favourite in the collection, gives us the wonderfully realised Jimmy Hughes, a pensioner trying to get a date for the Big Cheese festival. We Don’t Know What We’re Doing isn’t Cloud Atlas, thank God, but the variety is impressive, and the wonderful ending of ‘Strange Traffic’ suggests that Morris may be as adept at channelling Richard Curtis as he is David Mitchell.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of these stories, though, is the people they capture. The town psychiatrist who wears high heels to the closing-down sale of a video store, the life-on-the dole protagonist of ‘How Sad, How Lovely’, the single mum with the tennis-mad son, who’s visited by a plumber and his son in ‘a mini plumber’s outfit’ – every detail of these lives is laid out with such empathy that these characters live with you.

All in all, then, We Don’t Know What We’re Doing is a truly marvellous thing. The extent of its accomplishment is clear from the other writers name-checked in this review. Which other books from Wales this year will seriously bear mention in the same breath as Dylan Thomas, Sherwood Anderson, Denis Johnson or Raymond Carver? This is a first book, and it’s important not to get too carried away, but on the evidence of this work, here’s a young writer with a very bright future indeed.

Jonathan Edwards won the Costa poetry award earlier this year with his debut collection, My Family and Other Superheroes (Seren, 2014).

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