And so, it is on with the motley, and to turn to Rhys Hughes's newest collection. Tallest Stories. When the book is as wriggly as a puppy on a sugar rush, it is not the time or place for serious, frowning commentary. This collection isn't about speculative fiction as platform for socio-political debate. This is taking speculative fiction in its purest form, and stretching it until it squeaks: this is fiction about fiction and the form of it, while bouncing up and down on its tensile limits.
This highly humorous reading experience is Hughes's biggest work: sixteen years in the making. He explains, in a suitably dry (as he admits) post-script, his point. He wished to create a grand story-cycle that had connections and references between all stories at every point in it with stories from any other point. Thus cometh this book: a testing snippet of a bigger cycle he wishes to work his entire oeuvre into. Reading the sixty-two short pieces: stories, asides, extended puns and shaggy dog stories, one comes across moments that feel almost like extra-textual shout-outs and in-jokes, causing a smirk of appreciation. But on reading again, one realises that the reference is an in-joke to the rest of the volume. For the most part, it is akin to being held in a web of Hughes's creation; all sticky and multiple-stringed. For a project that claims by its end to encompass the universe entire as the forum and home of all tall tales and improbabilities, it is remarkably self-contained in referring only to itself. This is perhaps wise; external references become dated. The exercise in creating a total interconnectedness of fiction can only happen, if it is to stand the test of time, within the walls of itself. Thus the playing with the fundamental physics of narrative, while fun, is an enclosed experiment, ultimately a vanity project. Thankfully, the surreal content of the stories means that it is being undertaken with tongue firmly in cheek.
Hughes here is at his most sprightly; a scamp, a will o' the wisp, a charlatan and trickster, playing with the essence of narrative itself. Claiming by the end that it is possible to stretch the fabric of narrative reality, and by extension what that reality means to us, as reading, thinking, self-describing beings, by the stretching of tales. He elongates them into the tallest balustrades of nonsense possible to prop up an ambitious idea. For as I read, I received the idea that Hughes's stories, instead of using narrative fast to explain the human condition of self-description by word and deed, are themselves the metaphor for self-description. For that which describes - even a joke or a ridiculous tale about space dragons or a shop that sells rain - will be constructed by a mind that will have a reason for speaking: to entertain, to historicise, to use words to put their thoughts into focus. By creating a story cycle, by playing with the essence of what is expected in a story, in a collection of stories, that tool of self-description is itself now being described.
What Hughes's actual thoughts may be shift in and out of focus; he's a past master at shielding his opinions. The polemic behind choice of subject matter is secondary to the experiment. And the experiment inevitably comes up against the limits of narrative. It, and therefore we as its users, cannot escape the condition of being who we are. The actual technicalities of writing the stories; presenting skewed perceptions, playing with conventions of expected narrative form, gambolling through wordplay and breaking through the fourth wall is what it is all about.
The experiment proceeds through the use of meta-fictional effect. There are frequent allusions to the book itself, the writer who writes, and the reader who reads. For example, among the charming stories of recognisable fiction (e.g. The Man Who Threw His Voice, The Golden Fleas, The West Pole, The Minotaur in Pamplona, Wood for the Trees and The Mirror in the Looking Glass), are the bits of narrative framing device; inter-story chitchat and story introduction by the linking characters: the narrator Napoleon and the barman Hywel. Then there are those - more especially in the first part with the Tall Tale pub as the setting - that present as interactive with Napoleon and Hywel, as the narrators are quizzed and interrupted in their story telling (e.g. Ghost Holiday, The Story With a Clever Title). A book as a separate entity being written in is first mentioned in Knight on a Bear Mountain, and Hughes as an author is mentioned first in The Story With a Clever Title, as Napoleon and Hywel debate the point of a reader's and character's relationship with the manuscript when they discover that one of the pub's patron's (Hughes) has on him the story as it is being read by Napoleon on a piece of paper, within the story…And again Hughes returns at the end, as a final story-telling voice to finish the collection.
By the start of part two, each story is contained by the framing narrative alone (the pub is gone, Napoleon and Hywel are on foot, with a tent for a pub) and the meaning (or possible meaning) of each is allowed its own space, free of interruption from Napoleon or Hywel. Indeed, the entire tone from this point on in the stories is one of lack, of loss. People don't achieve things, they lose things, they are seeking something to stop a gap of need, they feel a lack within them, and the uncertainty of this reflects the new stage of 'pub-iness' that Hywel is obliged to create with his tent and wanderings.
Reading is a very intimate experience, and the story cycle conceit, with its meta-fictional frame, will have it exploded into a realisation of an active effort. The book uses specific effects to break convention. It is self-referential, utilises metaphorical surrealism that suggests a multiplicity of 'meaning' for each story, and sets up a framing narrative device that explodes in size to encompass a huge stage for the action. This is a journey into the heart of speculation; a place where philosophical and psychological theorems collide into a creative event horizon. And one cannot escape the suspicion that under it all is some geezer having a right old laugh at the insanity of anyone ever thinking that stories were not an intricate and intimate part of human psychology. Because we all tell tales: narrative is how we communicate, how we separate a temporal past from the present. And tales are subject to change, sometimes deliberately for a purpose; e.g. they become 'tall' - less accurate. Hughes has managed, through his overt manipulation of the mechanics of writing, and the showing of those mechanisms, an incredibly subtle, ironic joke. These are 'tall tales' (that which describes the past) and, indeed, every story in the book is set in the temporal past of the narrators, as things that have already happened. But it is presented in the genre of speculative e.g. yet-to-come fiction.
Surreal and speculative, this is a dip into the Id; the wild, the dangerous, the uncontained. The ego is the assumption of control by a writer over ideas, the corralling into a direction, a shape. Hughes is very much about letting the Id take over; his writing connects on a visceral level with un-obvious metaphors that are more instinctively understood than cognitively appreciated. In a Classical move, there is a guide. To address us directly, walking the fine line of imagination between Ego's control and Id's unknown. This is Napoleon; at first an unnamed voice, who recounts the elements of interleaving framing narrative in the first two parts. Believing one is Napoleon is the joking default of identity crisis in skits set in lunatic asylums. Can we, entirely trust the veracity of our guide? Or is he actually an escaped lunatic? It would make sense to have a possibly deranged voice as a guide in a world of tall tales and fantastic fortunes. Interestingly, he chaffs at a narratively-induced incarceration in Hywel's pub: Napoleon is apparently unable to leave - unable to leave fantasy. Taking advantage of a fictional bomb and using it to explode the unreal pub, his 'escape' is into a world just as weird. Napoleon never escaped. Tall stories fill the universe, and there is no escape. By the third part, Hywel the landlord, assuming responsibility as the universal landlord, is the connective voice. But he speaks as a reported third person: we have become the direct witness of these stories now: Napoleon is silent. Thus we have joined the asylum. Our Ego - the control of being a reader, reading a book, has been usurped by the Id, and we are considered as much a part of the action. When we read, we are temporary inmates of the 'asylum' of fiction, and it will define us as we define it. The lunatics did not so much take over, as have always been in charge.
Like the Sphinx's riddle, this is a book that covers the three stages of life within its framing narrative: first the enclosed space (an improbable pub, visited by those alive, dead, and fictional, in a murky backstreet off the Cardiff docks). Then the birthing and youth, within it exploration and contact with others (with the pub literally blown up and open, Hywel and Napoleon take to their feet to leave and find new venues. The 'pub' now contained in a tent that is carried from place to place; we take our learning with us). And then the final stage of life: the older adult settles demanding that life comes to him, as he desists from rushing towards events (the tent is expanded to encompass the universe entire, and Hywel, now a universal landlord, calls from a position of god-hood to bring forth tellers of tales).
According to Hughes's logic, if a pub is where tall tales are told, a pub that encapsulates the entire universe must thereby contain all tall tales. Therefore all tales in that universe will be tall: ergo emotional, fantastical, wish-fulfilment, metaphorical and parable; describing for the tellers what they wish to be, or what they think people would be better off being. And if the book is meta-fictional, it is suggestive that there is connective truth here; that this universe of tales is our universe, because we have been caught by the characters reading their book; we are complicit with them. Philosophically, then, the universe is but a collection of tall tales. So those in that universe - us - have become those tall tales; for what qualifies an individual is how they are described. There is theory out there that makes much of the construction of reality and self through explication, that narrative is the defining element of experience. But that would be just another tall tale, then.
The book's premise does have a slightly fatal flaw: it is a book of increasing expansion, moving on and on, but with nowhere for the expansion to go. The book was Hughes's test 'snippet' of his bigger idea. But if he does manage to create a story-cycle in and around his whole oeuvre (a monumental pipe-dream), it will by necessity have to be open-ended, and thus a non-cycle, an unfinished product. For when he completes the cycle, he will by implication have finished writing. Unless he sets up a cycle that can be self-perpetuating, onto which he can tag later works. This being the case, this book failed as a 'mini cycle' test: the framing narrative exploded its premise into a universal shape, the ends flapping about in the ether. It is perhaps the choice of the world 'cycle'; which is about return and renewal. Story commune, perhaps, or story collective. In terms of reference, the book does perform return through the character of Hughes-the-writer. Mentioned at the start (a few stories in, but there nonetheless), a return to Hughes at the end encapsulates the book to some degree. But this wrestles against that narrative thrust towards expansion introduced by the progressive staging of the book's three parts. It feels as if something has been let down.
Oh, it's a clever book; it is bouncy, cheerful, with some really good groaner jokes and puns, and some genuinely moving stories. Of the latter, The Urban Freckle and its tale of literal urban decay, Corneropolis and its lonely seeker and The Smutty Tamarinds and a man's desperate search to be accepted stand out as particular examples. But the original conceit might not necessarily be practicable in the long run. For the purposes of this collection, it makes for some stimulating thinking about the nature of writing, but it remains an improbability, if this book is the best example.
It is perfectly possible to ignore and refuse to engage in Hughes's mind-games and simply enjoy the book entire as a work of exploded, flexibly weird surrealistic fiction. This is, after all, meant to be a book of nonsensical wisdom. It contains exactly what it says on the cover: tall stories; not to be taken entirely seriously. Yet by their very nature, these make for a sparkling collection of vivid snippets, proving that tall writing is valuable for its very kaleidoscopic variety and beauty. This book is full of enough ideas for a handful or more of writers. By keeping the stories short and the subsequent pace brisk, as well as not engaging fully with moribund depths of 'meaning', leaving any such to be found by interested readers, Hughes has created a book of deceptive shallowness. Beware a Hughesian puddle- for it inevitably will leave you soaked to the neck! His work is characterised by an ability to make the reader work for it; to tweak suggestion and leave us to take the bait. As a 'cycle' it may not quite work. As a point of startling engagement it is an intelligent and addictive read.
Kate lives and works in Oxford, UK, doing her bit for the NHS and the sick of England. When not nursing a doctor's ego, she can be found reading and reviewing speculative fiction, and is open to suggestions and submissions for such (gizmomogwai at hotmail dot co dot uk). Her interest in speculative writing found full flowering at university, when she talked her tutors into letting her write her undergraduate dissertation about vampires, and then her post-graduate about pirates. Yarr.