Little Eyes is an odd little book. There's a new craze - kentukis - little computerised pets that are controlled by an unknown stranger, potentially anywhere in the world. The kentukis have cameras in their eyes and microphones in their ears. Kentukis are expensive, regardless of whether you are the keeper or the remote dweller. You sign up, switch them on and get matched up with a one time only connection to the random dweller. If the kentuki runs out of charge, the connection is irrevocably lost.
The novel is basically a collection of short stories - some of which are recurring and some are short one-offs. We come to each situation from the point of view either of a keeper or a dweller, then we may (or may not) get to know more about the other partner in the relationship. The kentukis witness intimate moments, moments of crisis, crimes and boredom. And the built in peril of needing to return to the charging mat is exploited to the maximum, over and over again.
The stories unfold all over the globe; they explore the limits of the concept in different ways. But the stories are really not that engrossing. The characters don't develop much, there is no overarching quest, there is no connection between stories. There are occasional moments of suspense, at which point the narrative chops away to another story. The momentum is lost.
The basic concept also never really convinces. Why would someone want to open their lives to someone they never know? Why would someone want to spend hours watching people watching TV? How do the numbers of dwellers and keepers match so perfectly? Why would anyone be so invested in something that typically lasts only a few days?
The idea must be worth something, and there is some entertainment in some of the stories. But there is something missing. The analogies to social media and privacy concerns are not fully explored. There just isn't enough to carry the idea, good though it might be. Perhaps a generous three stars for the concept, but it would be nice to see an idea carried through a real novel.
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The Darkness of Wallis Simpson is the second of Rose Tremain’s short story collections that I have read and like those in Evangelista’s Fan, they are as good as I always expect of her writing. I still find the short-story form a little disappointing, but these are all interesting, unusual and thought provoking stories.
I bought this collection on the strength of the title as I know nothing, other than the obvious, about Wallis Simpson. I certainly didn’t know about her final days, when her lawyer assumed power-of-attorney over the bed-ridden Duchess, who was suffering from dementia and had lost her power of speech.
Tremain’s story imagines the confusion in Wallis’s head during those days, when her ‘carer’ demands she try to remember details of her life with the Duke of Windsor - who is a pale and shadowy, figure barely existing in her memory, compared to the more vivid recollections of her previous husbands. It did make me feel a little more sympathetic towards her.
Some of the other stories include:
A redundant East German border guard in 1989, tries to reach Russia by bicycling across Poland.
A jilted man gets his revenge after 30 years
A character in an impressionist painting tries to escape from the domestic scene.
A single woman brings up her niece after her sister dies and her brother-in-law takes refuge in the local asylum
And my favourite: An elderly man attempts to improve the lot of some penguins in a Wildlife Sanctuary (and in particular his sponsored penguin) and at same time come to terms with a childhood tragedy.
As with Evangelista's Fan , a possible theme might be 'unfulfilled hope' - so not a jolly book, but each story says something worth thinking about.
Heads of the Colored People is a witty and - at times - savage portrayal of middle class African Americans. Through many of the stories there is a thread of expectations - the expectations of the black community of their own; the expectations of the white folk; and the expectations of the individuals themselves. There is a sense that it is very hard, if not impossible, to be an individual who just happens to be black. There are roles to be played and if you don't conform to the expectations, someone is going to get hurt.
The stories themselves are very varied. We have a crotchety university professor who hoped for a quieter life by working at the black university; warring mothers waving qualifications at one another when botching about one another's daughter; a social media whore; a disabled guy and his stalker. None of the stories is boring, and for the most part they work well. Some of the stories interlink or have common characters - and I might spot more links if I went back to the beginning. This builds a sense of community and shows how some of the characters resent having expectations forced upon them while they force their own expectations on others.
Despite the darkness, there's a healthy dose of positivity. Many of the characters are upwardly mobile - even the victims don't have a sense of victimhood. Poverty is something that happens to other people, although the legacy if poverty is hinted at occasionally - for example, one story centres around the first time a black person tasted potato bread.
The writing is clear and the narrative direction is clear. None of those opaque short stories with ambiguous endings here. It's not pretending to be arty, but is quietly effective in giving the reader both entertainment and an insight into a community that may not be well known or well represented in literature.
The collection is short - always a relief with short stories as collections can feel quite choppy quite quickly - and the individual stories feel just the right length, long enough to make their point but short enough not to go stale.
Really, a very good collection.
This collection of short stories, published in 1994 is just as good as I expect of her work. Even though I don't enjoy the short-story form (they always finish before I am ready to stop reading) these are some of the best I have read, with intriguing plots, and well rounded characters.
I have been trying to spot an overall theme, and it seems to be mostly 'unfulfilled hope', so a little on the sad side. But each one a little gem.