Tales of Ordinary Sadness is a collection of fifteen short stories by Neil Randall, and its title is a reference to Charles Bukowski’s short story collection, Tales of Ordinary Madness. Sadness certainly is the theme of the collection, with each story acting as a study in the more depressing areas of modern life – this is a writer not afraid to deal with addiction, abuse, poverty, or disease. Randall provides an uncanny insight into the pitiful conditions of working class Britain in the twenty-first century, exploring how things got so bad.
Sadness may be ubiquitous through the tales he tells, but ordinary they are not. The first story in the collection, the longest one, follows a man who has found a magic suit that bestows upon him great wealth… but only while he remains in physical contact with the suit. Others are narrated by buildings and jackets. Each story seems to contain a gritty realism, yet is infused with elements of the bizarre, and in doing so they offer a surprising insight into modern society.
It seems to me that Randall is preoccupied with debt. People owing money and working their way down the ladder of society is a theme that continually crops up. His characters are working class folks whose lives have gone to shit, and all-too-often that is because they have been scammed out of their money – by banks, by other people, by their own greed, or by the forces of capitalism. He portrays these people generally as naïve and simple folks, sometimes good people, but always flawed, taken in by a greedy system and spit out.
My favourite story is narrated by a brick in a tower block, who narrates a half a century of British history through the vantage point of a wall in a flat, many storeys up from the ground. It embodies a crude nationalistic nostalgia, yet offers a believable and entertaining overview – through snapshots of life over the decades – of the deterioration of Britain. Without ever saying so much, it captures the fall of the empire through the transformation of the British character from upstanding, hardworking folk to violent, self-obsessed layabouts (such as the characters seen in other stories). Each inhabitant of the flat embodies or is acted upon by the ethos of the era, turn by turn leading to the demolition of the building and society itself.
The cruel, almost random nature of life also pops up. Humans are sadistic to each other, and systems of control are inherently violent, he seems to say. Yet the very world itself is chaotic and oppressive. Perhaps worst of all, within many of his characters there is some self-sabotaging demon. As in real life, people often act upon impulses that are not in their best interests.
Randall is excellent at portraying the environment of deteriorating working class Britain – of high streets and boozers and tower blocks, and he has a wonderful grasp of the speech patterns of these people. The weak links in the chain are when he brings American accents into the stories, which seem fake, and he is clearly better at writing men than women.
This collection is highly readable. There are a few stories that are less compelling than others, but most of them are extremely well-written and entertaining. They may well be sad, but they are also witty, perceptive, and engaging.
Neil Randall’s story, The Debt Collector, appeared in Beatdom #16.
In the late spring of 1939, Weldon Kees, his wife Ann, and his parents, John…