Attrib. this: Eley Williams's experimental stories are a microblast

This thought-stoppingly daring debut (and other stories) offers the winterval reader a bounteous sharing platter of thinking experiments. And a whole lot of fun

Generally, the trick in storytelling is to make the reader forget about the building blocks of language, and concentrate on the larger structure. As a reader, you might subconsciously pick up on rhythms. Sometimes you will notice a sharp phrase or two, a rhetorical flourish, perhaps the odd bit of alliteration and assonance. If you let him, Will Self might bash you over the head with his dictionary. But, on the whole, it’s what the words do that matters, rather than what they are. You focus on the broader picture, not the pigment and paint, even if you can also appreciate the colours.

Attrib. is different. Right from the start, Williams isolates and focuses on single words. Here’s the opening:

“The plot of this is not and will not be obvious. I’m pretending that this is not important. It is quite likely that I have lost it anyway. The plot.”

She lasers in on individual words. Highlights them. Spins them around and serves them up again:


- You should never start sentences like that, I know, but

what’s a sentence really if not time spent alone –”

Here, I want to pause to emphasise how much fun her use of language provides.. How it works on so many levels, as well as feeling profound. Sometimes Williams also presents a familiar word in a pleasingly unexpected context, like: “There’s a bird in the tree outside your window and it was shouting at your house.” Shouting! I can’t think of many books that’s made me think about language in quite the same way. There is the famous Fry and Laurie sketch about the “flexibility of language and linguistic elasticity, if you like.” The hilarity of their attack on the obsessively wordy shows the risks in Williams’s approach - and how well she has done to avoid absurdity.

Williams gets away with it. Her writing rarely feels too mannered. She can pause on a word and make it feel like an addition, rather than an interruption. The continuous wordplay in Attrib. is more than just a linguistic game: it’s also a way of thinking about the world. This is a book that looks harder and deeper at everything around us, and Williams has an eye for details that we tend to take for granted: “Staring down into it, you can see that the grille of a microphone contains endless darkness.” So it does!

Eley Williams.
Eley Williams. Photograph: Idil Sukan

When Williams does deliberately and self-consciously interrupt herself, the results can feel important and even tender. In a story called Alight at the Next she stops a long flowing thought about standing close to a significant “you” riding on the London tube, thinking about another passenger’s horrible tie, comparing herself and you to Bonnie and Clyde and also having a “whisky” slid down across a bar in the tube carriage (long story). The interruption is separated off by a dash, a line break and parentheses, so there’s no doubting that it’s a significant pause. But it’s one that also provides new momentum:

“(this thought breaks down when I remember I don’t like whiskey spelt with an e or without)

(this Bonnie and Clyde metaphor breaks down too when I remember that the real life Clyde, in jail, in order to get out of breaking rocks, took a spade and cut off some of his own toes)

(I would not want you to have a toeless lover)

(I want you to have a lover who can stop this man in his suit and tie)

(I want you to have a lover who is not embarrassed to say the word lover in a carriage filled with tired, final-round West Londoners)”

In the story, the narrator is desperate to invite the you of the story home with her, but unable to articulate it fast enough before her stop approaches. She can’t overcome the other distractions in the carriage, can’t pluck up courage. And so Williams’s way of revolving around things, turning the words over, veering in and out of introspection, adds to the anxiety and longing in the story. These apparent digressions reveal the soul of the story. They carry emotional and dramatic power. It’s all very clever – but it’s also more than that.


Sam Jordison

The GuardianTramp

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