Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance – Matthew Kneale

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Matthew Kneale’s Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance seems oddly named until you realize it was published in 2005. The book is a collection of stories focused on male protagonists who seem either clueless or hopeless when it comes to functioning in the wider world or redeeming an uneventful life.

The stories are accomplished—they deliver all the necessary elements of a good short story and do so in convincing and coherent prose. Some have a little twist at the end, although nothing so heavy-handed as an O’Henry. But it was impossible to care about any of Kneale’s people. They seemed like losers to me and a few were rather thick as well.

The clod who takes his family to China and dares to depart from an organized tour, trying to pronounce a tonal language in a train station rather than point to the Chinese characters, ends up in the middle of nowhere because he is so exceedingly arrogant and tone-deaf. Duh. A suicide bomber loses his nerve and then loses his nerve again. And so? Brits who buy a run-down Italian villa and leave the renovations to return to England are shocked—shocked!—to discover their idyllic domicile has been fitted out with Ikea cabinets, etc. Could not care less about them, but I did feel bad about the formerly charming old house.

Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of the short story form. I once wrote one—just one–that got the most encouraging hand-written rejection from The Paris Review. I still have that slip of paper somewhere. Perhaps I will revisit the idea of writing short stories someday. But I don’t really gravitate towards reading them and, when I do, the bleak modern experiences are depressing most of the time. Don’t really need any help there. I’d rather read stories about people, no matter how fanciful, who I might root for or be entertained by. Would not object to characters who might leave me nonplussed. But these Brits, in the midst of their “abundance,” were someone else’s cup of tea.

Find an abandoned stash of cocaine and start selling it to pad your miserable failed-law-career bank account? Jerk. Stick your novel in a drawer and follow your wealthy older lover around like a puppy because she prefers you that way? Wimp. Get drunk because you have no prospects and move all the garden gnomes in town to one central location with your mates? No wonder you have no prospects. The only character I liked was an irascible old grandfather who didn’t give a crap what people thought of him and didn’t mind being slightly outrageous. That dude had some imagination. The rest of them? Not so much.  

Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance   Matthew Kneale |  Doubleday   2005

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8 responses »

  1. LOL If the short stories are as flat and engender as much apathy as they seem, I must say your review must be better–and a whole lot funnier. Three cheers for honest critiquing!
    Donna

    • I always wish every book would be electrifying but there’s no accounting for taste. Clearly, reading at this mad pace dosn’t give me time to shelve the ones I don’t love so I’m just reacting to them–not really reviewing anything. Someone else might LOVE short story collections and this one in particular. Alas, I did not. But I also dislike guy stories where the protagonist deals with his angsty life by screwing it up really really badly, getting habitually drunk or drugged, sabotaging his relationship or career, etc, ad nauseam. And I’m reading one of those now and trying to get past my own prejudices. Fortunately there are plenty of murder nysteries to default to–and I’m hunting for some good fantasy, too, but that’s harder to find.

    • I’m not fond of the short story genre. The best I can think of are James Thurber’s. The closest I’ve come to reading one of late are three novellas published in one volume called Berlin Noir, and highly recommended by two authors with extrememly discerning taste. Alas, aside from the build in tension and plotting as the novellas progressed, the volume was not to my taste.

    • Maybe it’s the satisfaction of world-building you experience in a novel. I love to enter a skillfully constructed world and spend time in it. That’s hard to do in a short story because, as soon as it gets started, it’s over. I do respect the haiku-like nature of telling a tale in a short story but many stories I sample (or skip) are larded with tons of detail anyway and fail to enlighten. I guess I’m just not into the form.

  2. Try reading Sylvia Townsend Warner’s short stories – “A Spirit Rises” is imho an excellent offering. If you have a subscription to the New Yorker you can find several of STW’s stories in the archives. Short stories are tough to write – there are so many pitfalls – keeping up the pace and keeping things from going stale take a lot of skill and imagination, so its not surprising there are so many bad examples. When I finally plucked up the courage to post one of my own in my blog I tried to disguise the authourship!

    • It will take more than courage for me to venture into short story world! But I consider my lack of affinity with the form to be a personal failing so I’ll put STW on my list of must-reads to see if she turns me into a fan. Thanks!

    • Regrettably I could find nothing of STW’s short stories on line (except for the stories in The New Yorker). I wanted to post one of my favourites (of hers) but since I am still struggling with the arcana of OCR I am quite stymied at the present. Perhaps I will resort to scanned images from my book.

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