Exercises in Control

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Read 22/01/2020-26/01/2020

Rating 3 stars

This slim volume of short stories by poet and fiction writer Annabel Banks is one of my chosen books from my Influx Press subscription. It’s a challenging and entertaining read. There are moments of real discomfort mixed up with the laughs provoked by Banks’s ability to skewer human nature.

The stories explore the veneer of self-possession we varnish onto ourselves as we navigate the world, the ways we try to wrest control from a society filled with confusing social etiquette and its demands that we never truly be ourselves in public.

It was interesting to read these stories straight after the Murakami novel I just finished. That, too, is a book about control and whether we really have it. The world is so random. There’s only so much we can do to actively control it. The rest is placebo intended to calm our inner turmoil, faking it to make it feel true.

Banks shines light on the way none of us is entirely one thing or another. We like to pigeonhole ourselves and each other, because it makes us feel normal, even when we seem abnormal to others. We can measure ourselves against others that way. And others against us, of course.

Within these pages are people who subject themselves to violence or flirt with it as a choice, a way of feeling in control of the abuse that they expect from life (Susan Frankie Marla Me, Free Body Diagram). There are those who feel impelled to carry out violent acts (Limitations, The Higgins Method). Others counterintuitively put their faith in superstition as a way to control the unknowableness of life (Exercises in Control, Momentum).

Superstition as a means of control is at the core of the particularly nasty title story. Its nastiness lies in the normalising of a cruel act within an anodyne setting. This story made me feel sick. The cruelty was a cold and unnecessary act, making it monstrous in its necessity to the success of the story.

Humour comes in stories like Rite of Passage, Harmless and Common Codes, where the woman in each tale gets the upper hand over the man who is incapable of interacting normally with a woman as a human being. It’s a smirking sort of humour, slightly charred around the edges.

The tales of women using control of their own bodies to try to feel empowered in a world geared towards men, a world where male power can mean violence against the female body, made me think about the recent, somewhat flawed, Louis Theroux documentary about sex workers. Given the odds stacked against us in a world designed by men for men, control over our own bodies is perhaps the only thing women have, and even that is a vulnerable thing. The male gaze translates into lifestyle advice and conditioning that leads us to doubt our physicality and see ourselves in commodified terms. In situations like those depicted in Theroux’s documentary, where the sex workers who do not rely on/are not exploited by a pimp, the women feel that selling their bodies for sex is an act of autonomy. This is true, but doesn’t guarantee that they won’t have that empowerment taken away by a violent client. The undercurrent of violence in Banks’s stories plays on this vulnerability. As a woman reading these tales, the subtext kept me on edge, delivering a sort of grown up fairy tale, allowing fear to be experienced in a controlled way.

My favourite story in the collection is With Compliments. Banks sketches vignettes of lives in crisis, covered over, the invasion of others dodged. Linking each situation is an over-narrative describing the prison/hostel of the subjects’ coping strategies. It put me in mind of Ben Marcus’s writing style, particularly his collection Leaving the Sea.

I also enjoyed the retelling of Pygmalion in The Higgins Method, reshaping it from Eliza’s perspective, retelling it as an abusive relationship from which Eliza almost escapes. Sympathy with her abuser Higgins means that she can’t completely escape.

This is a fine first collection. I would have liked more, both in terms of number of stories and in depth of exploration, but as a series of snapshot ideas that border on flash fiction, they are well worth a read.

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