Premise: A woman wakes up to find she has unexpectedly been granted a superpower and struggles to deal with the consequences. The residents of a small town post their frustrations and concerns on an internet message board. A father struggles to explain death to his young daughter. A virtual writer prepares to possibly write the theoretical book he has been thinking about for years. Hotel du Jack is a collection of short stories and flash fiction threaded with humour and a perceptive understanding of the human condition.
Short story collections often don’t get the fanfare they deserve. Publishers and, to a certain extent, readers generally consider the novel to be the pinnacle of the literary form. But in today’s world of fast-food, fast-fashion and fast-forwarding through the advert break, we all seem to have goldfish attention spans so you’d think that short stories and flash fiction would be a on the up. And attention spans aside, there is a lot to admire in the crafting of an outstanding work of short fiction. In “Hotel du Jack”, Dan Brotzel has conjured up twenty eight such literary gems.
We start with “Nothing So Blue”, wonderful in how it pulls in unexpected directions. A pub conversation about superpowers leaves Katya completely invisible. She panics. She phones NHS direct. She wants to go to the shops but realises that she looks like a ‘life-size scarecrow ragdoll thing’ and people are understandably shocked. Back inside, she thinks about how she can make herself more presentable – ‘Not being a skier, a bank robber or a paramilitary insurgent, I had no balaclava to hand.’ This is just one example of the pinpoint humour peppered throughout. Dan is a master of comic touches but the stories are not just played for laughs.
Take “The Paths of the Great Lovers Cross at Victoria Station”, for example. Here there is a wistfulness to the writing in places, a knowing tone of voice that flirts with schmaltzy over-the-topness (‘She was his great impossible love, his grand obsession, his magnificent anecdotal agony’) before pulling back. “First-World Problems” is a wonderful example of a breathless paragraph, encapsulating a familiar familial microcosm in a few short words. And throughout there are notes of contemplation that simmer below the surface and provide a necessary contrast to the plentiful comedic moments.
One of the things that Dan does so well is play around with form. “Active and Passive Voice” masquerades as a grammar manual. On the surface, “Listing to Port” is a collection of shopping lists. “Our Special Words for Things” manages to tug on the heartstrings despite being set out as a glossary of terms to describe the parts and processes of a dishwasher. His stories are also all pleasingly different one from another. Some have a supernatural element to them whilst other are firmly rooted in the real world. He explores relationships in all their forms – friends, colleagues, lovers, parents and children. He finds magic in the everyday and uses the magical to make us question how we live our lives.
The expected wisdom in a collection of short stories is that the best stories will come first and then the less-good stories will be used as middle-of-the-book fodder. But this isn’t the case with “Hotel du Jack”. Every story is well worth five, ten or fifteen minutes of your time. And some of my favourites – “Foods of Love”, “The Angry Sun God” and “The Beach Shop” – come in the second half of the book before the collection goes out with a bang on the slightly longer-form title story. If you want a book that will make you laugh one moment and move you the next, full of insight and surprising twists and turns, all neatly packaged for our 21st century attention span, then this is definitely one to add to the TBR pile for 2020.
Other great collections of short stories to get your teeth into: “The Things They Carried” (Tim O’Brien), “Grand Union” (Zadie Smith), “Common People” (An Anthology of Working Class Writers)