Gathered Here Together by Garrett Socol (published by Ampersand Books) is a collection of twenty-two short stories set across the United States and Canada and exploring the odder and darker side of human life.
The title of the collection is significant. A wide variety of individuals and their stories are gathered together within the collection and the tales it narrates. Many of these fictional episodes are centred around social gatherings: parties, funerals and weddings, occasions where humankind are wont to come together formally. In “Sally’s Suicide Checklist”, “The Charismatic Accountant” and “Ophelia’s Fortieth” events occur in relation to parties. In the titular story, “Gathered Here Together” and in “The Mourners Wore Magenta” funerals are the cause of the human gatherings, whilst in “The Missing Bridesmaid”, “Architectural Digestion” and “Fame and Madness in America” weddings feature in the story line.
In the midst of all this social life, there is a lot of death; there are suicides, would-be suicides and possible suicide/murders, actual murders, accidental murders, deaths from illness and as a result of cataclysmic natural events.
Counterbalancing so much death is the extremely human lust for life, or perhaps just plain old lust: “Gathered Here Together”, “The Missing Bridesmaid”, “Liquor Store Lust”, “Tooth Decay”, “The Mourners Wore Magenta”, “Intended Target”, “The Bludgeoning of a Burgeoning Young Artist”, “Kate’s List of Lovers” and “Fame and Madness in America” involve sex in its myriad forms and then, in two stories where young men are dying of incurable, wasting diseases, the threat of AIDS raises its head: an epic and unspoken coming together of sex and death. It may well be significant that the final story, “Fame and Madness in America”, coming directly after the story of AIDS-related death, “We Knew What It Was By Then”, coins the phrase, “Fame is the new sex.”
Interspersed amongst these tales of life and death are three stories allegedly based on a (decreasing) amount of fact and concerning the inventions of deodorant and dental floss (humanity microscopically examined through its sweat and dental plaque) and marital discord amongst the writer’s of Roget’s Thesaurus. Indeed there is a remarkable quantity of such discord across the other stories. The humanity which heaves, argues, sulks and kills its way through the narratives in this collection is rarely euphorically happy. There are exceptions: Sherri in “The Missing Bridesmaid” knows ecstasy just before it kills her and one of the lead characters in “Whites in Hot Water” finds the thrill of laundry trumps any other form of ecstasy on offer, whilst marital discord eventually finds a kind of equilibrium in the shared joy of clean, fluffy whites.
The quirkiness of “Whites in Hot Water” is reflective of the collection as a whole. These are slick, polished and frequently surreal stories, smoothly written vignettes and episodes which peer obliquely at humanity. It’s humankind held up to a slightly distorting magnifying glass… and here is the collection’s Achilles heel, for me at least. The stories are intriguing, colourful and quirky, but all a bit clinical. It’s as if peering through the glass so intently distances us from the characters. I’m sure this is intentional, but I found myself longing for a little more human engagement from time to time. I wanted to do more than just observe. I came nearest to a form of emotional engagement with “Intended Target” and “We Knew What It Was By Then”, where the clinical remoteness of the narration contributes rather than detracts from the understated pathos.
I must point out, though, that this disengaged observation is only a weakness if you are a reader who likes to engage emotionally with story characters. If you like your tales observational, intense and cleverly dry, then Gathered Here Together could well be the collection you are waiting for.
JS Watts lives and writes in the flatlands of East Anglia. Her poetry and short stories appear in a diversity of publications in Britain, Canada, Australia and the States. She has had two poetry books, Cats and Other Myths and Songs of Steelyard Sue, published by Lapwing Publications and her novel A Darker Moon is published by Vagabondage Press. You can find her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/J.S.Watts or on her website www.jswatts.co.uk.