Strait Men and Other Tales
Steele Roberts, $30.00,
Strait Men and Other Tales by Murray Edmond is a tricky beast. Its slim spine belies the size and style of the stories within – there’s nothing that you’d call a “normal” short story. Instead, you’re faced with the theatrical, the epistolary, the filmic, the journalistic. One theme for each story – because there are just four of these tales inside, and the titular “Strait Men” is decidedly in novella territory.
That speaks more to reader expectations than anything misleading on the part of author or publisher, mind you – nowhere does the book claim to be your regular old collection of short stories. But by being something slightly indefinable, it’s almost confronting. It’s one thing to not necessarily have a genre drawer to put a book into – it’s another to not have a format that you can describe it as being.
Starting from the beginning, the theatrical “The Roamer: Two Monologues” does feel lifted straight from rehearsal script to bound page. Two perspectives, two men whose lives are intertwined. It can take a little time and concentration to become clear exactly who these two people are, whether they are reporting from the same time and place, what their relationship to one another is. This could be intriguing – and it is, to a point – but it can leave the reader floundering and flicking between pages to figure out exactly what’s going on. There’s quick code-switching between familial relationship names and actual names – sometimes for the reader’s benefit, sometimes, it feels, at the expense of the reader.
This slight disconnect from the reader is not the sole domain of the first tale. Each piece of writing in Strait Men requires a certain level of concentration and attention to detail to keep up with the play – with “The Last Resort: A Treatment” laid out, as the title suggests, as a film treatment, there is a focus on visual cues that doesn’t allow any rest for the reader. This is not the sort of book where you can let language wash over you – the book demands your attention.
On the topic of language, Edmond is definitely a top-notch craftsman. The use of language is exquisite – delicate and clearly very carefully thought out. That Edmond is a theatre practitioner comes as no surprise – even aside from “The Roamer” (with the monologues a clear theatre convention), it’s not a large step to imagine the other three stories enacted on a stage.
To invoke another sort of comparison, reading Strait Men is like looking at an impressive painting. You can see the careful brushwork and the delicacy of touch in some places but, at the end of the day, you are observing something, rather than feeling immersed in it. You are a viewer, rather than a participant.
It’s refreshing. There’s a level of fantasy and imagination running through the tales that keeps you on your toes – and the samplers of these different styles and formats leave you wanting more, meaning the switch between stories can become a little disorienting. But Edmond’s creativity in format and language is worth the wild ride.
Briar Lawry is an Auckland writer and editor.