“The things I could tell you about the underside of a rat’s chin if only I had the right words for their importance!”
- 'Mischief', 137
in Attrib. by Eley Williams
Influx Press, 2017.
Buy the book: Here!
...the narrator exclaims in ‘Mischief’ towards the end of Attrib., and in a way sums it all up. Her cry acknowledges the difficulty of language, how we sometimes struggle to find the right words, to recognise the wrong words, to understand or even use words. The narrator claims she would be able to say a lot of things about rat’s chins, if only she had the right words, and that is exactly what Williams’ has. The right words.
Attrib. is a short story collection about our relationship to language, each other, and our surroundings as humans. It is a series of heavily character-driven stories, most of them told in first person with unnamed narrators. You may very well find yourself oddly familiar in the scenarios portrayed in Attrib., kind of like that melody you hum sometimes without knowing where it is from. Most of the stories are just above or under ten pages long – they are small, punchy stories that unfold in a moment of thought. While this causes for a relatively quick read, I found I read most stories twice. Williams’ prose is highly poetic and meaningful, which makes her stories quite compact. To make sure I had picked up on all of the clever wordings and soft metaphors, I needed to grant each piece my full attention and contemplation.
My favourite piece in the collection was the opening one, ‘The Alphabet’. It is a story about someone who is diagnosed with a rare disease that causes them to gradually lose their ability to understand and use language: Aphasia. The details, both in the sense of imagery and storytelling, are truly extraordinary. It is clever and careful, subtle and heart breaking. The viewpoint character searches for their glasses, and then three pages in admit “with some embarrassment” (12) that they have been wearing them all along. Looking for something so essential as one’s means to see generates a sense of a concentrated confusion. It acts as a metaphor that may be as close as the reader is going to get to understanding what it is like to lose something as important as one’s means to speak. “Even though I now know the whereabouts of my glasses the feeling of lack remains. I have lost something else so here I must remain, poised to retrieve. If I say, ‘Something else. Something else?’ in an authoritative way perhaps it is more likely that I will find it, whatever it might be.” (13) Something specific has been lost, we know that, but we do not know what. The narrator continues walking through their house, picking up pieces of memories, as the reader slowly realises what it is the narrator is forgetting. It is the subtlest knife through the heart you’ll ever receive.
Language sits as the puppet master behind all the stories, and I think that is why I felt strongly about reading most pieces out loud. ‘Smote’, a story that takes place in the moment just before a kiss, was a particular pleasure to bust out once, twice, three times really fast. Except for the opening and closing pages, the story consists of one six-page sentence. Yes, six pages. It is both an auditory and emotional experience, as speed, intonation and subject matter roars up and quiets down, leaving me breathless. “[…] I might as well be pushing marzipan through an iron portcullis, I might as well be kissing you through a trellis, I might as well be pushing you up against a snuggle-toothed grinning and ruined keyboard […]” (50).
I thought the text needed a voice that reached my ears literally, a sound that accompanied the dashes, italicization and line breaks my eyes saw on the page. Williams seems to have been having fun with language, and as a result, I was too. The entire collection evolves around details. Every story has a very specific heart. In ‘Swatch’, a boy is obsessed with colours, and names the colours in his surroundings as he has memorised them from the paint buckets in his father’s shop. A foley artist is distracted by everyday sounds in ‘Attrib.’: “‘Lament,’ said the tree branch who chose that moment to graze my windowpane, and as if in answer the hinges on our cat-flap downstairs said ‘Pyongyang’[…]” (35). He has been tasked with creating the sound of Eve’s creation for a museum audio guide, and just can’t seem to get it right. In ‘Alight at the Next’, a person stops a man from pushing on the tube carriage by “placing a finger on the middle of his forehead” (60), and the entire piece takes place in just that short moment. Williams takes little specks of reality and shows them to us with a magnifying glass, showcasing their brilliance.
I have never truly understood the art of reading slowly, spacing chapters or pages out between days or weeks. I am a relentless binge-reader. With Attrib., however, I did read slowly. More specifically, it took me 17 days. One story a day. I naturally fell into this tempo because I felt like I needed to think about every story properly. Had I embraced every clever wording properly, thought of every small detail in the network of connections made in each story? After reading ‘Bs’, had I clearly imagined seeing a naked woman release a bee out a morning window, but also imagined being a naked woman releasing a bee out a morning window? (57-58) It felt important to digest such magical portraits found in what we may refer to as the everyday life, to hold them tight in my brain so that maybe some of their magic would transfer into me.
What I enjoyed the most about Attrib., Williams’ sense of voice, is also one of its potential flaws, and a contributing factor as to why I felt inclined to read only one story a day. Whereas Williams’ voice is undeniably enjoyable, it is very distinct. Together with the fact that the characters are so focused on contemplative activity, it does sometimes feel as if the same character tells all the stories. This did not necessarily bother me, but I picked up on it, and I can imagine it would have been an issue if I read the book in a shorter space of time than I did.
When I finished the last story in Attrib., I got that same feeling you sometimes get when you finish a conversation with an interesting person. With Attrib., Williams reminded me that there is magic to be found in even the smallest spaces of day-to-day life, something maybe only someone with a lot to say about rat’s chins would be able to do. It wasn’t in a roaring, world-changing way, but it definitely lingered with me; a small reminder that maybe what we refer to as ordinary life isn’t as mundane as we like to think.