Pictures Of Houses With Water Damage is a thoughtful collection of twenty-one loosely-interconnected short stories of domestic dysfunction. Whilst the titular story is ostensibly about boredom and the travails of a man whose job it is to take pictures of houses afflicted by water damage, it is also an apposite summation of the entire collection. The domestic scenarios and situations depicted in these stories are all marred by some form of psychic or social “water damage”: dysfunctional people and relationships, precarious situations, scarred emotions and sheer bad luck.
Only one of these stories can really be said to have a happy ending and that is the slightly-fantastical, penguin-featuring, “It’s Very Cold Down Here”. It seems you can’t have a happy ending and reality at the same time.
Elsewhere, and back in the gloom of day to day reality, relationships end, people get shot or beaten and the phone keeps ringing with the voiceless possibility of a reunion with someone loved and lost that is never going to take place.
The stories apparently refer to different characters, but themes and leitmotifs crop up time and time again, linking the flow of the stories and granting them echoes beyond their basic narrative: the phone “ringing at all hours of the day”, guns and gun-shots, extra-marital affairs and pregnancy. “It’s Very Cold Down Here” is name checked in the opening “Why Don’t You Use Your Parking Space” and voiceless phone calls frame the beginning and end of the collection.
The style of the stories is appealingly simple and conversational, allowing Hemmingson to tell a story as much as by what he leaves out as what he says. The overall tone of the collection is dryly unemotional and detached. Combine this with the vignette style of many of the pieces and their frequently open-ended endings and you have a collection of stories suspended in amber, or, more appositely, a collection of snapshots of damaged people and situations. Everyone is looking for a happy ending, a resolution to the endlessly ringing phone of the first and last stories, but only Ripped Van Winkle, the misplaced surfer dude of “It’s Very Cold Down Here”, gets the fairy story ending of “Oh yes–and they lived happily ever after, etc.” (Incidentally, the life-saving Emperor Penguins of the tale get eaten by killer whales–reality, it seems, can’t let go totally).
This is a stylish collection of domestic disharmony where each story makes its mark, but the combined collection leaves greater evidence of sustained human damage than the individually damaged lives it describes.
Pictures Of Houses With Water Damage is available from www.blacklawrencepress.com.