Feeling Versus Argument: On Tom Conaghan’s “Reverse Engineering”

July 12, 2022   •   By Declan Ryan

Reverse Engineering

Tom Conaghan

REVERSE ENGINEERING is a collection of seven short stories paired with interviews on how they were written — a niftily simple premise. Readers who might be worried about the cost to their enjoyment of seeing how the sausage was made needn’t be, as Tom Conaghan, the book’s editor, explains in his introduction: “Understanding writers’ craft is less like a nautical map than learning to read the stars — it’s not important knowing the route if the purpose of the voyage is to get lost.” He also makes the slightly less demonstrable claim, in the grand lineage of anthology provocation, that “[s]hort story readers are emotionally eloquent enough not to need consolation from life in all its heart-aching richness.” Like the canny horoscope writer, Conaghan can assume that we’ll enjoy being flattered too much to question the claim’s veracity. The stories collected here are unified only by what the editor calls their “vivacious diversity,” and the stories and interviews certainly display a broad range of approaches to the art; however, there seems to be something of a divide between feeling and argument as the anthology’s organizing, or at least driving, principles.

Sarah Hall confesses, in her interview, to being a “sensualist,” attempting the difficult task — as does her story, “Mrs Fox” — of trying to apply logic to something elemental. She tells Conaghan that “[w]riting is often a feeling about what the shape should be, rather than it being a mechanical approach. I’m quite an automatic writer so I can get a sense of what I’m doing and feel that it’s right.” Hall’s sentences operate along similar lines to lyric poetry: there is some active, imaginative shaping going on beyond the willed or “mechanical,” which leaves one reaching for words like “magic.” Hall has learned from folklore about the need for concision when moving us beyond the ordinary, but one of the great ghosts behind her voice is James Salter. From him, she appears to have learned how to do something with verb tenses that introduces, or at least gestures toward, eternity. The opening domestic scene is, before being exploded by the mythic, both immediate and lasting, encroached upon not only by time but by the outside world. Everything, including time’s passage, becomes at once a charm and a threat through Hall’s stately control of voice:

True angles, long surfaces, invisible, soft-closing drawers. The mortgage is large. They have invested in bricks, in the concept of home. A cleaner comes on Thursdays. There are similar houses nearby, newly built along the edgelands, in the lesser countryside — what was once heath.

The natural world intrudes upon these arrangements: what was once wild cannot be restrained for long. Hall talks in her interview of the short story as “a piece of a river […] it’s already flowing and it continues to flow,” and her tale flows from what might almost be a chivalric riddle: “That he loves his wife is unquestionable.” The happiness of her characters, we realize, is fraught, and they will come under impossible pressure. The husband is tested by something inexplicable, his wife’s transformation into a fox, “a thing from another realm.” There is an echo of Ted Hughes’s poem “Epiphany” (from Birthday Letters), his late reckoning with his marriage to Sylvia Plath, where we encounter fox cubs as putative offspring:

If I had grasped that whatever comes with a fox
Is what tests a marriage and proves it a marriage —
I would not have failed the test. Would you have failed it?
But I failed. Our marriage had failed.

Hughes’s question — “Would you have failed it?” — echoes through Hall’s story, quietly accusatory, casting love as a form of captivity. Hall’s arresting lyricism is matched by her description of the transformed Sophia: “She is like a comet in the surroundings, her tail, her flame. She has her head lowered, as if in humility, as if in apology for her splendour. […] How easily she can fell him; and he will always fall.”

If Hall might be said to stand at the apex of feeling-led writing, other works proceed more through argument than sensation. One of them, Jessie Greengrass, when discussing endings in her interview, leans on Hughes’s near-antithesis Philip Larkin. Where Hall talks of “overshooting,” Greengrass sees the ideal ending as one that, like Larkin’s poetry, “opens doors”: “You can see the space beyond it and that’s the poem. […] I think it’s always looking for that point at which I feel there’s something beyond and what the story’s done is opened itself onto that space. If you keep writing beyond that, you shut it down again.” Greengrass also talks about the story as argument, illuminatingly: “[Y]ou set out your premises and then you reach a point where you draw the conclusion — the conclusion in a story is for me the reader’s emotional response.”

Greengrass’s story in this volume, “Theophrastus and the Dancing Plague,” is built on imaginative research and based on a real figure, though with some license taken. The story develops the thoughts, and mystifications, of Theophrastus, otherwise known as Paracelsus, and his attempts to understand God by analyzing the dancing plagues that swept Europe in the 1500s. In her interview, Greengrass puts her finger on something that does, at times, emerge for the reader: “I think the writing is ok though I do think there is possibly a problem that the story is slightly tenuous.” She is a fine writer, with moments of thoughtful insight, but this story — taken from her first collection, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It (2015), doesn’t show her at her best, but rather seems to be fleshing out a curiosity by embodying it. The Greengrass we encounter in her 2018 novel, Sight, has learned to more fully synthesize research into story, but nonetheless she is, here, true to her Larkinesque word, leaving the story open, standing back from it almost, in a final flourish: “He can’t stay where he is and, although he has nowhere to go, he is left no choice but to continue. Wearily he turns around, and begins the long walk back, toward the pass.”

Chris Power’s contribution to the volume is also, at least in part, research-driven: as he jokingly notes in his interview, “the biggest influences in this case were the RHS and Woodland Trust websites.” His offering is an interesting study in foreshadowing, exploring the blurred line where metaphor meets allegory; in his interview, he notes that his initial version was more allegorical, but it was “an uncomfortable fit.” The dialed-down version is still laden with symbolism and ritual, which is deftly handled: the black river water mirrored in the gulped-down pint of Guinness; a bath scene in which — unknowingly — Ann, the irritated lover, prepares Jim for a death that will come as a jolt at the story’s close:

In the near-dark Ann leaned Jim’s body forward and washed his back. His pale skin shone faintly in the darkness. […] She put her hands in the water and cleared his back of soap, […] She put her finger on the leftmost mole and walked her hand across them, left to right and right to left. “You’re marked” she said.

That we are still surprised (and slightly gratified) by Jim’s demise a couple of pages on is a testament to Power’s handling of suspense, his marshaling of tension as an undercurrent rather than a blunt instrument. Interestingly, the author seems not to take his own advice, as he indicates in the interview that he’s not a fan of endings that “snap shut,” but prefers those that, like Chekhov’s, “dissolve in a mist.” There’s no mist here, but by writing “against [his] normal habits,” Power is able to fleetingly jump forward, breaking what is otherwise a unity of time, even if it does make the story more of “a trap, of sorts.”

If Power doesn’t take his own counsel, Jon McGregor does (as his interview shows, Power’s critical work has been an important influence on McGregor’s writing). “The First Punch” is a fairly early work and — as McGregor notes in his interview — at times feels like it. He’s dissatisfied with some aspects of his technique, specifically what he — or rather Power — once categorized as a “prevaricative voice”: the use of uncertainty in speech to give an illusion of realism but which, in fact, ends up feeling mannered, too obviously “written.” The story also has a tendency toward run-on sentences, a proliferation of “ands” — affirming McGregor’s sense that he wasn’t, at this stage of his writing life, fully on top of his punctuation. The characterization is also a bit too on-the-nose in its depiction of two types of men — one a slightly wimpish office worker, the other an aggressive former manual laborer — whose relationship plays out against a faded industrial background. Yet there is still plenty to enjoy here, not least McGregor’s unique way of handling reported speech and his penchant for shifting between perspectives, all within a story with a bit more overt “action” than we might have come to expect from the author. As with the contribution by Greengrass, “The First Punch” doesn’t represent McGregor firing on all cylinders, but given the volume’s emphasis on process as well as result, we perhaps learn more as readers from the missteps than we would have from something impeccable.

It’s clear that the other writers have absorbed useful craft advice too, albeit not necessarily from one another. Mahreen Sohail, in her interview, details one of the more resonant, discussing Amy Hempel’s incisive dichotomy as a way of thinking about voice in a story: “One is ‘whatever I do, I have to tell you this’ and the other one is ‘whatever I do, I can’t tell you this.’” Her own story — like Power’s — courts an allegorical reading, with its characters named for their relationships: “the girl,” “the mother,” “the boy.” She also closes with a temporal shift, but where Power’s telescoping of time is swift, a single phrase, Sohail’s offers a potted biography of “the girl,” transporting us through her life after the action of the story. The purpose, Sohail says in her interview, is to show that the character isn’t merely someone who gets married, gives birth, and dies, but the suddenness of this ending feels more like survey than biography.

The stories by Irenosen Okojie and Joseph O’Neill are, in their ways, further examples of the feeling/argument divide. Okojie’s has an evident superstructure, and its ending offers a sense of closure, but the free-play aspect of her associative writing can, at times, be difficult to parse: one senses the author’s enjoyment in the process, but it doesn’t always correlate to readerly pleasure. Plot is, at times, deferred to the unconscious, to the fantastic; however, as with McGregor’s story, there is still plenty to be learned from these “flaws,” not least the liberation from linear progression and literalism. O’Neill’s story, “The Flier,” proceeds (a little like Greengrass’s) from a supposition or inquiry — in his case, “What would it be like to fly, in real life?” What emerges is witty enough, but — as O’Neill suggests in his interview — it can feel a little like a writer “running the numbers” through “a lens of realism.” There is more going on than a simple joining of the dots after an initial “imagine if…” — for example, a clever subplot exposing the tensions between danger and insurance, fantasy and responsibility.

Another boundary feels central to this anthology as a whole — that between intent and surprise, with many of the interviews serving as evidence that a writer’s own advice is sometimes best ignored in service of the story, and that navigating by the stars is, above all else, an invitation to felicitous diversion.


Declan Ryan’s first collection, Crisis Actor, will be published by Faber & Faber in 2023.