Errors. Mistakes. Flaws. Bad choices. Regrets. All of these are represented in this collection of short stories by Ashley Stokes, The Syllabus of Errors. These stories are dark, complex, somewhat dismal, and all together far too human. Stokes has peeled back the layers on his characters, revealing the sometimes unpleasant and raw innards hidden there. As he says in the story, Abyssinia, “A demon lurks in the blackout called you.”
Most of the themes and conflicts of the 12 stories in this book end in disappointment, rejection, or at the worst death. Somehow, even though we know that our hero is headed straight for the cliff, we are pulled along on the journey with him; ready to take the leap if only to stay with him until the bitter end. In Ultima Thule, it is fairly certain from the very beginning that bookseller Elliot Ansbro is going to have a hard time completing the deal with a renown, aged book dealer in another city. Ansbro braves the horrible weather, the miserable train ride, the somewhat less than stellar hotel in a last ditch attempt to close the deal. We admire him for his tenacity, his hopefulness, his plans; however, still we know it won’t be easy or most probably even successful. Let’s go, Ansbro, the cliff lies ahead. We will follow.
Stokes paints atmospheric canvasses with his historical and literary references – mostly to sprawling, staggered and struggling Europe during and after WW II. The references are rich and create the perfect backdrop for much of the depression, bitterness and sometimes violence that erupts in The Syllabus stories. At times they become a bit overpowering, distracting the reader from the story line. Oh, I better check the Internet for that reference and find out more. Wait! Where was I and what has the character done now?
An interesting tact that Stokes employs is naming some of the outlying characters by their traits, personalities or looks; for example there are Zombie Massive, Big Dump, The Lawyer, Mother Blanket, Jazz Funkateers. Often it works well in allowing us to focus full force on the main character and leaving the peripheral characters where they should be, on the periphery.
Don’t expect happily ever after in The Syllabus of Errors and most importantly, steel yourself for a downward, inevitable, rushing spiral. You may survive – or you may not. Either way Stokes hooks us in and we have no choice but to peer into that blackout that is us.
9 out of 10 Liams only because I had to Google many of the references and it pointed out how lacking was my history and literary education (or at least how little I paid attention!)