Review: 365 Stories, by James Robertson
Scottish author writes a story a day for a year
In his introduction to this book James Robertson explains the challenge he set himself for 2013: could he write 365 stories – one for each day of the year – that were each exactly 365 words long? Robertson, a poet, essayist and novelist – his book The Testament of Gideon Mack was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize – answers that question with this numerically taut and thematically broad anthology.
In an early entry called The Assassin a writer about to start a new story counters his fear of the blank page with the possibility of creating something new. This is exactly what Robertson did every day for a year, and the book’s calendrical structure allows real-time events to inspire some of the narratives. On September 18th a woman makes her way to a polling station for the Scottish independence referendum. The June 9th story begins as a rumination on close friendships, and it’s only in the concluding paragraph we realise that it’s a comment on the death of his fellow Scots writer Iain Banks.
Death himself is personified in a couple of stories: in one he’s happy to have “a job for life”, in another he’s at the doctor, stressed and in need of a holiday.
The prescriptive length of the stories may be a restriction, but in tone and form Robertson’s imagination runs amok. Ghost stories sit alongside fake obituaries, and reimaginings of fairytales – Jack, sans Beanstalk, is Scottish and a bit of an eejit – provide much of the book’s humour. There are talking animals (done well) and stories of affairs, jobs, astronomy and homelessness.
The brevity doesn’t blunt other, more poignant pieces, including one about an elderly father, once a strong sea swimmer and now a frail, dependent man. Not every story works, or lingers, and to some the book may feel frustratingly slight. The reader is immersed in each piece for mere minutes, like the fireworks of the November 5th story: “a brief moment of glory, then gone”.
Robertson’s collective narratives are more than that. There is invention and subversion despite the brevity, and he reminds us of the possibilities inherent in voice, dialogue and setting. Pithy and sharp.