Faber & Faber, £12.99
These ten stories, nine of which are set in Caerphilly, confirm Thomas Morris as an important new voice in Welsh literature. We Don’t Know What We’re Doing is an ambitious, admirably considered volume, which seeks the classical unity of a cohesive whole rather than the dissonant ambiance of a series of unrelated parts (that tenth story, for instance, while set in Dublin, involves a group of Caerphilly men on a stag weekend, and is therefore still very much a Caerphilly story). The prose at times recalls early John Updike in the way that it so succinctly captures teenage and twenty-something small town sexual ennui. But by the same token it also occasionally, and just as readily, recalls the Jarvis Cocker of ‘Babies’ and ‘Sheffield: Sex City’, with its idiosyncratic mixture of warm empathy and waspish detachment. Morris’s ear for Welsh colloquial speech, meanwhile, as well as his abilities with the art of gently surrealistic black humour cannot help but remind the reader a little of fellow countryman, Joe Dunthorne. But while Dunthorne mixes humour and sadness with perhaps greater emphasis on the side of humour, Morris is at his most powerful when paying more attention to the darker hues.
Take ‘Fugue’, for instance. Not only by some distance the best short story in this collection, it is also very probably the best individual story that this critic has read all year. It is one of those rare pieces that has, one instinctively feels, achieved everything that its author set out to achieve. Indeed if there are moments in this collection where the reader may feel that Morris is simply one of many interesting and accomplished new young writers currently at work today, it is in the presence of ‘Fugue’ that they will become aware that he has the potential to become something more indispensable and important than that.
The principal reason for this success is the delicate balancing act that Morris manages to maintain between humour and melancholy. The story concerns a twenty-something woman, Bethan, returning to her parent’s Caerphilly home for Christmas. The feeling of alienation from the achingly familiar that such returns often engender, as well as the unwelcome mirror that they may be wont to thrust before the returning offspring’s eyes, is expertly conjured. The territory Bethan finds herself in is a no woman’s land between the disappointments of the life that she has made in Scotland and the cosy-but-stifling homelife that she no longer belongs to in Caerphilly. Morris then takes us for a hilariously awful night out on the town with Bethan. Surely no reader can have been spared a drunken, diabolical Christmas Eve like this? Meeting former classmates that you didn’t have anything in common with but with whom, you now realise, you do have a lot in common with because of the large and formative part of your life that you spent in their company. Drinking at first reckless and then senseless amounts of alcohol with no thought – or perhaps with the exact thought – that it is already Christmas Day. Ending up at a ‘stale’ party in a stranger’s house with a baby in one room and a frozen solid turkey in the bath (insert your own peculiar details as appropriate).
Morris is very good at noticing small details, and small details indeed about Caerphilly itself (no doubt residents of the town will find much to smile and flinch about in equal measure) but the real talent is in the way that he makes idiosyncratic minutiae signify universal truths. The story closes with a moment of startling poetry, whereby Bethan’s perpetually sinister anxiety dreams appear to have seeped into the fabric of reality.
A story like ’17’, on the other hand, is probably the least successful piece here because it compartmentalises humour and sadness into two separate sections. One section involves a group of teenagers erroneously in trouble with the police and teems with the irreverence and irresponsibility of youth. Although Morris’s grasp of colloquial speech and character observation is not only spot-on but frequently hilarious, there is a sense that this strand of the story teeters over into Inbetweeners territory. The other strand of the story concerns the member of the group of teenagers that is the most sensitive and the summer-long grief that he experiences after the break-up of a relationship. While Morris writes about this with a great deal of empathy and uncensored emotional honesty, the absence of humour in this section makes it feel a little one-note and more like an extract from a teenage diary (a treatment of the subject matter that might have suited it better).
Having said that, Morris is extremely adept at writing about male introspection and male sexuality, something which is one of the central motifs of this collection. A piece like ‘Bolt’, for instance (which regular readers of Wales Arts Review may remember from our Fiction Map of Wales series), deals with a young man that sleeps with a dysfunctional, middle-aged psychiatrist, while living with the mother of his ex-girlfriend (who has moved away to university and keeps sending him angry texts insisting that he leave her family home). As with ‘Fugue’, the mixture of humour and introspection is combined with a great deal of artistry, creating an idiosyncratic, off-kilter brand of poetry. It also contains several killer lines: ‘She’s the town’s only psychiatrist and she’s pretending to be a horse,’ being the most trip-off-the-tongue-quotable.
One of the other particularly impressive pieces here is ‘All the Boys’. This, the aforementioned stag weekend story, initially gave this critic some misgivings, as it appeared to be heading into Inbetweeners territory once more. However, this is far from the case, as Morris expertly fuses something terribly sad and poignant out of all the laddish humour and bravado (which is, at the same time, rendered in such a way as to often be laugh-out-loud hilarious). It calls to mind Frank O’Connor’s ‘In The Train’, in this sense, with its microscopic awareness of the grit and minutiae of the moment combined with its inherent transience. The story leaves the reader with a sense of the great sweep of time as it departs like a locomotive from a station with a plangent cry. It is also worth noting that Morris writes wonderfully well about the Dublin that he now calls home in this piece, an avenue which it is to be hoped he explores in more detail in the future.
To summarise, then. We Don’t Know What We’re Doing is a brave and impressive debut that contains, at times, moments of real, dazzling, insouciant brilliance. Anyone that is interested in Welsh literature really must read it, just as anyone that is interested in dazzling, insouciant, brilliant new literature really ought to too.