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Everyone's Just So So Special Paperback – March 1, 2012
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Shearman is a hard writer to pin down. He flits in and out of genres with ease, his prose is deceptively simple but clearly thoughtful, and his stories are always more than they let on. As much as there is on the surface here, there’s a lot more hiding below. “Magical realism” would be the order of the day when describing Shearman’s writing, but that doesn’t really do his unique (dare I say “special”?) style justice.
I recently wrote a short story for a creative writing class in the style of Robert Shearman, aping not just his prose techniques but also a narrative trick that he used in one of the stories in Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical. And I think this is fairly ok – the story itself was original; and Shearman admits in Caustic Comedies to doing a similar thing with one of his heroes, so I’d like to think he wouldn’t mind too much. (You don’t mind, do you, Rob?) I bring up this not-terribly-original story because of my friend’s brief review of it – “I didn’t expect to feel things.” And that’s the way most of Shearman’s stories work: you go in unaware (or, at the very least, unprepared) and come out blindsided, hit by a proverbial 18-wheeler ferrying all sorts of feelings around the country.
And so it was with the stories in this collection, titled Everyone’s Just So So Special. The book purports to be about history and mediocrity, much like Shearman’s previous two books were about death and love. So, you know, easy stuff to tackle. And Shearman takes on these subjects with aplomb, fitting in conflicting views of each so that there’s no easy answer to the questions that each poses.
Robert Shearman, on his Tumblr, described Everyone’s Just So So Special as “a longer and tougher book” than his previous two, and this is absolutely the case. The warm fuzzies that hung over most of Tiny Deaths and Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical seem to have taken up residence somewhere else for most of this collection’s duration. Perhaps it’s because history is actually a far darker subject than love or death. The latter two are fundamental human experiences, but history is something we’re far removed from – something cold, abstract, and largely unpleasant. Many of the stories in this collection are microcosms for this idea: someone desperately attempts to be “special” (whatever that means), and they wind up paying the price for it, caught up in history’s sweep. Either that, or history does something terrible to someone regardless. “Restoration” is about history invading even the world where God certiainly exists and His attempt to shape its narrative into something that makes sense but is almost wholly fabricated.
Which is not to say that all the stories contained within are lacking in the humanity that makes Shearman’s writing sparkle. They’re certainly more cynical on the whole, and they’re often given endings more ambiguous than the already-open ones that typified the stories from Tiny Deaths or Love Songs. “Taboo,” in particular, is one that I still can’t quite come to terms with, even after reading it several times both here and in They Do the Same Things Different There. But if you’re worried these much darker stories about history would be as abstract as the concept itself, then fear not – Shearman’s penchant for clever tricks and human drama is still intact. For example, Shearman gets in a nice pun in the aforementioned “Restoration” that completely sailed over my head the first time I read it – history is “fabricated” not just because it is made up but because it is painted on fabric canvases. It’s the little things like this that keep the book from being too dark and make the stories in it worth coming back to. You may have also noticed that I didn’t cite many examples when describing the narrative shape of the book above, and that’s because the stories are actually about people. Lots of the time, these people fail miserably, and it’s often depressing. But there are notable exceptions.
Let’s look, for example, at “Acronyms,” not just because it’s my personal favorite, but because I think it’s actually the main point of the collection distilled to its essence. The story is actually multiple stories, each interconnected, each about a different character and what they do with their daily lives. The first concerns a railway-station café owner who makes the world’s greatest BLT sandwich, and who comforts a young woman after her boyfriend leaves her without much explanation. Then, we jump to a story about said boyfriend’s elderly father, who worked as a spy for some unknown entity years prior. As we move through each character’s life, we get a sense that they ARE special in their own way, even if their specialness never gets revealed to any characters in the other stories, or they die pointless deaths, or they’re terrible children to their mothers and terrible boyfriends to their loved ones. Even the man renowned for his mediocrity is special, and he has a power that others can’t even dream of. Who knew, right? Each is Hamlet in his or her own story, AND Rosencrantz or Guildenstern to another’s. But they don’t make a show of it – they’re content to live their special lives in absolute mediocrity.
Even the Pope takes a break from his duties to sell ice cream outside of the Vatican, worried that he’ll be judged in Heaven not as a great man but as a middling pope. Or maybe he isn’t the Pope after all, just a man who looks like him. What difference does it make, when the things he says are so wise, so poignant, so comforting? The church may claim to save your mortal soul, but ice cream can save your mortal stomach.
Also running through the book are one and two-page sections full of historical facts, with a story interspersed between them in italics. These sections are where Shearman gets in his trademark postmodern trick, the same one that I stole from Love Songs, where the lines between stories begin to blur and names begin popping up where they shouldn’t. They’re also printed in size 3 ½ print (or so it feels like), so they can be a bit of a strain on the eyes sometimes. But please don’t skip these sections just because they’re more difficult to read – they are absolutely worth the extra effort, historical facts and all.
In the end, though the book tries to pretend otherwise, this collection’s not really about history as such. It’s about memory (the incredibly poignant “A History of Broken Things”), aging (the heartbreaking “Times Tables”), what it means to be a person in a world full of other people just like you. It’s about the “sixty million people in Britain,” mentioned in “That Far, and No Further,” who are “all lost.”
“All of us, we’re all lost. Every single one of us.”
There’s a line from “The Space,” a Marillion song, that reveals a fundamental human truth: “everyone is only everyone else.” This, I think, is the ultimate message of the book. In the end we’re all struggling not to be great historical figures but just to be half-decent human beings. Which is hard to do sometimes, as Shearman makes clear, but is what comes naturally to us. So what, then, is the purpose of writing the book in the first place? Why try to make art, to be special, if the world will punish you for it? Why write a short story in the style of one of your favorite authors if you know you can’t ever show it to anyone who’s read the genuine article, which is so much better than your paltry tale could ever hope to be?
Because it’s in moments that we are special, not in history.
This history stuff, it’s all bunk in the grand scheme of things. Because the grand scheme of things isn’t actually what we think of at all. It’s the “billions upon billions of footnotes, not worthy of being featured in the main text.” It’s the lovers who drown in the sinking of the Titanic, not the event itself. It’s you, and me, and Robert Shearman, and this incredible, terrible, dark, lovely, wonderful book.
The title, at first a bitter, cynical, caustic paradox, becomes by the book’s end both a beautiful truism and a calm plea.
Everyone’s Just So, So Special.
So stop trying so hard, dammit.