Reading group: Attrib. by Eley Williams is December's book

The draw to find a neglected treasure from 2017 has turned up this collection of short stories, which promises to bring a happy close to the year

Attrib. by Eley Williams has come out of the hat and will be the subject of this month’s reading group. Since the theme of the month is catching up on the books we’ve missed in 2017, a quick primer:

Atrrib. is the debut collection of 17 short stories from a hitherto unknown writer. The blurb on the back advertises “affectionate, irreverent and playful prose” in stories dominated by “the inability to communicate exactly what we mean”.

The title is, of course, an academic shorthand for “attribute”. This latter is defined at the start of the book in a quote from no less an authority than Dr Johnson:

“ To ATTRIBUTE v.a.

1. To ascribe; to give; to yield as due.

2. To impute, as to a cause.”

There also follows another definition:

“TROLMYDAMES [Of this word I know not the meaning.]”

As soon as I read that, I was sold. I was certain I was going to enjoy this book. But here I should also admit to strong personal bias for this strange and creative collection of short stories – to the extent that I was almost embarrassed when I pulled the nomination out. I love Atrrib.’s publisher, Influx Press. I’ve also seen Eley Williams talk on a couple of occasions and thought she was hugely impressive (and funny). This book also provides the perfect fit for me when it comes to our remit on catching up on 2017. I’ve read and heard quite a few snatches of Attrib., and thought they were superb. But I haven’t ever managed to read the full thing and have been wanting to for months.

But I also hope Attrib. will be a great choice for everyone else. And you don’t just have to go on my recommendation. As the year has gone on, Attrib. has won ever more plaudits. It’s been in Justine Jordan’s list of the best fiction of 2017. The New Statesman, the Telegraph and the Australian Book Review have also named it among their books of the year. And it had a stonking good review here, where Cal Revely Calder concluded:

“Fiddling with words, as if playing with them were all that mattered, her characters draw time to a standstill – then they stop, suddenly, blinking and thrilled. It’s beautiful, the way they get lost.”

Michael Hoffman also praised the book in the London Review of Books . His first paragraph is worth quoting at length to give an impression of Attrib.’s strange appeal (not to mention an idea of the excellence of Hoffman’s own writing):

“Before I embarked on Eley Williams, of whom I had read nothing and knew nothing, I flipped through Attrib. Even on first flip, I got a sense of something I sometimes find in things I like and that seem good to me, something that subliminally distinguishes writing that is careful and alive: a kind of alphabetical justice, to give this sheepish and probably disreputable thing a name in public. The letters in her words seemed to be drawn from adjacent parts of the alphabet. They had thought about themselves and one another. There was something collusive about them. They backed up one another’s story. They had demanded to be consulted, and come to their own unconventional arrangements. It all makes for alphabetophile writing. In the reader, it produces a kind of constructive estrangement from words. Think William H Gass, Lydia Davis or Anne Carson, and you won’t be too wrong.”

In the Financial Times, Melissa Harrison says: “Playful and utterly bravura, it deserves to be read by everyone with a love of words and an interest in the way deftly wielded language and original ideas can come together to detonate on the page.”

And if that’s all sounding very serious, Harrison also reminds us that Williams is “brilliantly funny”. Because that’s the other thing that makes me think this is going to be an excellent month. This book may do serious things with language and ideas – but it doesn’t do them at the expense of entertainment. Attrib. also promises to be a laugh – and here at the end of 2017, that seems more valuable than ever. I hope you’ll join me.

Thanks to Influx Press, we have copies of the book to give to the first five people from the UK to post: “I want a copy please”, along with a nice, constructive suggestion in the comments section below. If you’re lucky enough to be one of the first to comment, email Phill Langhorne with your address (phill.langhorne@theguardian.com) – we can’t track you down ourselves. Be nice to him, too.

  • Attrib. by Eley Williams is published by Influx Press (£9.99). To order a copy for £8.49, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.

Contributor

Sam Jordison

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