Wish you weren't here

Collected Short Stories

The vast expanse of fabled Greeneland, where it's traditionally believed Graham Greene takes us in his best work: does it really exist insofar as fictional worlds can? Has it a coherence and identity that establishes it as a subtle retelling of our own reality, a shift in perspective comparable to noir or Pynchon and Dick's vast holism of conspiracy and shifting truths?

This collection of short stories goes some way to answering that question. Sadly, that answer is: yes and no; or rather, Greeneland stories are easy to spot, and the others are in a world of their own. A complex, uncommonsensical morality pervades all the suspect stories, a paralysis that leaves the characters unable to connect or to perceive the reality of people's actions, blinded by the fog of their well-meaning. There is frequently a lonely, harassed protagonist (A Chance for Mr Lever, Jubilee) who is put upon by circumstance (Dream of a Strange Land, May We Borrow Your Husband?, Doctor Crombie). Morality, duty and compassion come into conflict and often open warfare (almost all the above, plus The Basement Room, Mortmain and Men at Work). All the ingredients of Greeneland are present in detectable if occasionally meagre concentrations.

But what's most interesting is Greene's sideline in entirely un-Greeneish fiction. Two equally sinister (but a little similar) stories about the undead take Greeneland dread and horror and apply it to an entirely different genre. A Drive in the Country transplants Brighton Rock methodology into Ken Loach's territory. Comedies and satires like Awful When You Think Of It, A Shocking Accident and Beauty hit the reader with some force, although the usual sense of suspicion and dread pervade even these. It's a joy to discover the science-fiction tale of A Discovery in the Woods, powerful and resonant with all the fears of the past century, a coda to Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Liebowitz.

Irritatingly, many stories have minor flaws which often go unnoticed on the first reading. Cheap in August seems primarily to have been given its title so that it might have a snappy ending, entirely out of keeping with the rest of the story. A Chance For Mr Lever ends clumsily and blockily, its use of karma and the irony of unknown events not really carrying the conviction of the writer, let alone convincing the reader. And the na gCopaleen-esque Under the Garden unravels all too quickly. These niggles aside, the 37 stories in this one volume represent a rare treat. Each one is a page-turner, regardless of Greene's occasional, apparent lapses of writerly judgment. This is Greeneland and Greeneland's precursors, true: but this is also a postcard sent by Greeneland on holiday and, true to form, away is no more secure a place than home.