Black Vodka, by Deborah Levy, And Other Stories, RRP£12, 125 pages
Deborah Levy once wrote of her wish to avoid “that thing that happens to so many Women – it’s as if we burst out of the birthday cake without context, history, or past with every book”. Yet this more or less sums up what happened when last year’s Man Booker judges shortlisted Swimming Home, her indie-published novel.
Levy had been writing plays, poetry and fiction for more than 20 years. Her novels include Beautiful Mutants (1987), Swallowing Geography (1992) and The Unloved (1994). Exploring themes such as sexual deviance and the aftershocks of war in difficult, discordant prose, these earlier books are far less saleable than the holiday-villa setting and coming-of-age romantic intrigue of Swimming Home.
The irony of Levy’s new prominence is that it coincides with more signs that her work is mellowing. In five of the 10 stories in this slim new collection, Black Vodka, infidelity is a predictable pivot.
In “Simon Tegala’s Heart in 12 Parts”, a man cheats on his girlfriend because his father is dying, then finds himself forgiven, movingly, when he ends up in hospital after a bike crash.
The energy in the best stories in this book tends to come from the ideas rather than incidents. “Stardust Nation” is narrated by an advertising man, Tom, and tells the story of his agency’s head of finance, Nick, who suffers a breakdown: “Nick had somehow made my biography his own. Rather him than me, I must say. To be honest it was a tremendous relief to see how distressed he was.” Nick has replaced his own nondescript past with the trauma of his boss’s early childhood, and as Tom feeds him more details, Nick’s condition worsens. Tom, meanwhile, feels “more optimistic about the future than I can remember for a long while”.
The story feels like a dark joke about empathy, normally prized as fiction’s ultimate goal, but portrayed here as a step on the road to madness.
Added to Levy’s sinister, near-private language – eerie motifs in these stories include wolves and eczema – this collection includes many events that seemingly contribute less to meaning than to mood. In “Cave Girl”, for instance, the narrator describes a motorway collision between a furniture van and a baker’s truck: “The drivers crawled out of their vehicles streaked in blood to find a load of chocolate éclairs and cream cakes splattered on leather sofas and office chairs. I don’t want to see anything shocking ever again.”
Either the random nature of such details will frustrate or it will be one of the ways by which these ominous, odd, erotic stories burrow deep into your brain.