With “History’s End” upon
us, I thought it might be apt to examine not The History of
the Doctor, or even the wider Whoniverse,
but that of
the world that we live in - its wars, its empires; its decline-and-falls.
But I won’t be doing so through academic texts, ancient art or even
representative literature – I’ll be doing so through the grunge-filtered
eyes of Mr Robert Shearman, whose latest collection, Everyone’s Just
So So Special, seeks to expose every single one of history’s
mediocrities, while at the same time illuminating the achievements of all
those who’ve fallen between the pages of the history books (heroes all).
I was particularly excited about this release as I’m one of the hundred
people who signed
up not just for the twenty-one comically macabre tales promised by the
blurb, but also for a unique twenty-second that is to be
partially-handwritten, dedicated to me, and star some wrong
’un from my
family’s past or future. Making the reader feel so very special is
certainly an ironic move, given the anthology’s themes, but it’s an
exhilarating one nonetheless, and I can’t wait to see where Shearman takes
the Wolversons (and with a great grandfather who was reportedly a serial
bigamist, all but laying waste to our family tree, he’s going to have to
really plumb the depths of his imagination to impress me).
But herein lies the rub – I have to wait. When I purchased my stonkingly-expensive
leather-bound tome, I inferred from the website’s description that my
unique story would form part of a specially printed one-off volume, and
as such spent a very agitated ten minutes fervently skimming the book when
it arrived, looking for the author’s hand-written scrawl. Eventually a
very creased, laserjet-printed letter from the author fell out, telling me
that my personalised story would be with me by Christmas, sent on a
separate bit of card and published on his
website. Given that Shearman has to produce almost five
times the number of stories found in this volume, it’s not an
unreasonable delay by any means (in fact, I’m in awe of how prolific he
intends to be), but I do feel that Big Finish should have made the terms
My initial irritation soon evaporated, however, as I plunged into the
twenty-one turbulent tales that I must
for now, not to mention all the countless words that bridge them.
departure from previous collections, Everyone’s Just So So Special
is interspersed with pages of tiny-print text detailing the history of the
world according to Shearman. One’s first instinct is to skip over these
pages, as the print is so small that the pages look more like an artistic
intermission than anything that should be carefully studied, but Shearman
conveys even the most prosaic of information with more intelligence and
humour than most writers would fascinating material.
Amongst the stories on offer, there were inevitably a few that didn’t set
me ablaze, however in every such instance this is probably more due to me
missing some nuance than it is some deficiency in the tale. Indeed, the
standard of the stories in this volume is exceedingly high; so much so, in
fact, that were Big Finish to put out a Shearman’s Greatest Hits
anthology in the near future, then nearly half of this book’s deranged
misadventures would probably make the cut. Of them, “Endangered Species”
is my firm favourite, focusing on a couple who have recently lost a young
child and are trying to fill the hole in their hearts with a cat. The
trouble is, the cat is constantly bringing home creatures that it’s slain
as offerings – earning its keep, as cats like to think that they do. This
wouldn’t be so great a problem had the cat limited its hunting to rodents,
birds and the occasional wasp (though the latter may just be my cat), but
as time goes by it starts to works its way up the food chain, bringing
home more and more exotic cadavers for its increasingly-concerned owners.
It shouldn’t be funny reading about a grief-stricken pair of newly-weds
taking peculiar pride in their improving ability to dismember and dispose
of a Panda’s corpse, but it really, really is.
“Times Tables” ups the outlandish ante with a story about a person who,
each year, sheds her skin and becomes a new version of herself. Her past
selves are promptly ushered away into the attic, where they are forced to
endure alongside all her selves that she’s yet to be. It’s a fascinating
exploration of the nature of self, dealing with profound questions about
whether who we are now is really who we once were, or indeed will one day
become, alongside such comparatively paltry concerns as sexual infidelity
and boredom. Doctor Who fans may see shades of Paul Cornell’s
Timewyrm: Revelation novel here in how the protagonist’s selves treat
one another up in the attic, but for me that only added to the story’s
appeal, rather than detracted from it.
You, I Wouldn’t Be Alive” is one of the volume’s more moving pieces. Far
from being the syrupy serenade that many would surmise, this story instead
tells of a man who habitually purchases second-hand books purely for the
inscriptions that they carry, and the lonely charity shop worker who
thinks that she’s fallen in love with him. Shearman paints some
astonishingly alluring pictures through the inscriptions that he
fabricates, offering windows into lives and opening doors to stories that
range from triumphant to painfully sad. None of them, though, pack the
punch of the story’s eponymous inscription, the aggressive connotations of
which are borne out in the narrative to harrowing effect.
Everyone’s Just So So Special’s most contentious tales are those
in which Shearman uses ad absurdum examples to pass comment on
the world and human society, and perhaps the way that they’re headed.
“Taboo” introduces the reader to a world where marriages to beasts and
incestuous relationships are not only tolerated, but endorsed, and the
line in the sand is constantly being moved further and further back.
Whilst this could potentially be construed as a rally against the last few
decades’ liberal reforms, as ever Shearman simply appears to be
championing reason and good sense, which are not even ghosts of memory in
the world of “Taboo”.
Another extraordinary highlight is “A History of Broken Things”, which,
like many of the tome’s most memorable offerings, examines its themes
without any literary artifice. Initially framed as a critical essay that
passes comment on everything from fairytales to James Cameron’s
Titanic to how Jack Nicholson’s mind works, as the piece progresses
we are drawn into the writer’s life and the neuroses that define it; that
make it so special. What began as sardonic send-up of our blog-happy
culture ultimately proves to be a haunting examination of memory and
history, both personal and public.
The final offering, “History Becomes You” (which was nominated for The
Sunday Times’ EFG Private Bank Award), again sees the author turn to
the preposterous to make his points. One day, the Twin Towers return to
the New York skyline; it’s as if they’ve never been gone. Just as quickly
they vanish again, taking the inquisitive souls inside them with them,
only to return once more, empty. From there, it doesn’t take the more
cynical members of the human race long to commercialise the “9/11
Experience”, nor does it take long for its more impressionable members to
buy their tickets to oblivion; to look to find meaning in their lives by
dying as part of the defining tragedy of the noughties. In few words,
Shearman successfully captures that incessant human need to have a purpose
and somehow be special, and in doing so he expertly illustrates just how
ludicrous such impulses are, and how hollow the prize.
And there is so much more to be found within these pages – a girl who
collects dirt, but only Russian dirt; a hitman who blands people to death;
a man and his boy both enslaved by a merry-go-round of peripatetic Santa
Clauses; a moribund mother who tries to browbeat her child into getting a
tattoo bearing her name; even the fall of Rome, only again, and altogether
more wretchedly. With each new collection published, Shearman seems to
sound more like himself, and less like anyone else. One of his characters
describes a newborn baby’s shit as being sweet, free as it is from toxins,
which exactly the opposite of what Everyone’s Just So So Special
offers its readers. This is a book full of sour, intoxicating ideas and
images that you wouldn’t dream of smearing across a nappy. For all their
reasonable doubt and sagacious misgivings, these stories are somehow
uplifting; it’s as if they encircle the reader and make him feel as if
he’s been let in on history’s greatest joke. Everyone’s just so, so
special; especially me.
And so says one of the hundred.