Following Lispector and Carrington in her pursuit of the surreal, Jen Calleja’s fantastical short story collection promises to leave a lasting impression, writes Jade French.
Jen Calleja’s I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For (Prototype) is a trip through the mind of a natural storyteller. Charged with ambivalence, a variety of characters find themselves in strange situations that they meet with a detached, nonplussed air: the artist who realises she has been killed by her own sister; the serious actor who is treated like a natural clown; the German man who travels incognito to Sheffield in pursuit of a new life. Calleja uses the short story form with the same gusto with which Leonora Carrington and Clarice Lispector brought shining, strange worlds momentarily to life. In ‘The Debt Collector’, the protagonist even reads Carrington’s ‘The Debutante and Other Stories’ on a park bench. The words come alive ‘shifting and twitching, fading in and out’ (51) as the story seems to say directly to her ‘you should leave your husband… you should free yourself’ (51). There is something freeing about the short story form, particularly in Calleja’s hands, which she uses to conjure images and characters whose chimeric qualities powerfully remain long after you have left them.
Published in March of last year, Calleja’s debut coincided with the unfolding coronavirus pandemic. Like many new authors, what should have been a flurry of in-person excitement and launch events turned digital. The opening story ‘Town Called Distraction’ reads as especially poignant in what we might think of the slowed-down-and-sluggish yet heightened-and-anxious pandemic time. The speaker knows that we live in a ‘world [that] requests time’ (11). Clocking in at three pages long, it is one of the shortest pieces in the collection and yet seems to luxuriate in taking its time to develop. The story flies in the face of the expectant reader for movement, denouement and resolution. Calleja revels in elongated moments: the character takes precious seconds to creep fingers through a bag in search of hand cream, to read over the newspaper over someone’s shoulder and to get off the bus to pick up a book – all whilst the threat of a missed appointment looms. As if reaching into the lockdown fuzz, the speaker is worried ‘about whether things would turn out alright in the end, if things had already gone wrong sometime up to this point’ (13). With no answers in sight the story ends on an untold joke, where laughter becomes frozen as the narrator’s ‘facial muscles held a tech rehearsal’ (13) for the real thing. As Isabel Waidner puts it: ‘Deferral and near misses are at the core of Calleja’s writing’.
It takes a brave first collection to satarise the concept of the debut but ‘Literary Quartet’ does just that, offering a takedown of the way in which audiences crave the ‘new’ and the ‘young’. Indeed, one emerging author, Hester, thinks it would be far more sensible to disappear on the first cresting wave of success and be rediscovered in the aftermath as a long-dead writer. Four nominee’s stand on the cusp of winning the fifty-ninth Prize of Prizes Prize held at the Literature House, which offers the chance to gain ‘instant fame, glory, the works’ (18). The prize also comes with caveats, mind numbing dinner services and nepotism flanked by a desperate need to be accepted by the literary establishment. When the narrator wins, they are not there to collect the award, instead they watch the prize-giving online and a young man accepts the award on their behalf. Success appears only to slip away as ‘a dream I’d never dreamt before’ (32). The prestige of winning is unsteady ground in a creative climate built on anxiety, precarity and the constant search for the next new thing.
Indeed, Calleja’s stories often feel as if they take place against a background of creative instability. When a pregnant food writer abandons the freedom of freelancing (and her husband) in favour of a seemingly benevolent benefactor she swaps precarity for a private, corporate world. On moving into her benefactor’s house, she’s offered a salary to just ‘be me’ (162) and begins to gorge her senses on ‘eighty-five quid game pie, encased in suede-textured pastry and encrusted with caramelised jelly the colour of oil’ (163). Beneath the luxurious lifestyle, though, her benefactor wears a watch, the second hand of which ticks slowly round, shaped like a crawling baby. Sinister motifs such as this are left like purposefully anti-climatic entrails, where solutions to mysteries are unforthcoming. Reality always gives way to something strange. An image might flicker only in the corner of the reader’s eye – such as the crawling baby – or it might be more overt – such as a flash flood that magically allows animals to talk to save a young woman from a predatory teacher. These contemporary fables deftly deal with nuanced power dynamics.
Calleja’s collection has been a treat to read during the shifting gears of tiers and lockdowns. As I’ve had to move across the country, pack up my own precarious little life and hunker down again, these stories spoke to a deeper level about the ways missed opportunities, cancelled appointments, anxious dreams and outright nightmares manifest. Short stories are also, admittedly, a little less demanding on the dwindling concentration and motivation ingrained over the last year. However, these stories have also tasked my imagination, knocking down the humdrum in favour of the fantastic and giving a brief respite as with humour, surreal snippets and inventive style Calleja aims to keep you thinking.