A Man Melting
 by Craig Cliff

Random House New Zealand
First Collection

Awards: Winner, 2011 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book, South East Asian and Pacific region.

"My mother carries my father’s replacement wedding ring with her wherever she moves. Whatever the house, I know I could find this ring in the top drawer of her bedside cabinet in a pink clamshell earring case. But this is just the copy. It never had time to taper on the underside before it was plucked from my father’s finger."

Reviewed by Angela Readman

Craig Cliff won the Commonwealth Book Award in 2010 for his debut A Man Melting. The book earns it. The writing is fresh, bold and has a finesse that has a rare effect on the modern reader. Accustomed to skimming emails, squeezing a quick fiction into our coffee break, we read A Man Melting and feel we are in safe enough hands to slow down. There is enough in these stories, in terms of character, sense of place and what is at stake to, fully engage with. We can afford to forget where we are and take the time to take in every word.

The stories are mixed, in terms of length and genre, but are linked by the theme of evolution. Who and what are we becoming? These stories search to know.

The collection starts with a short story called Seeds, from which bigger issues and landscapes grow. Be it in New Zealand, England, Scotland, cities or small towns, the protagonists of the stories are cracked out of stasis and rut in the most unexpected, and entertaining, ways. In Facing Galapagos a man receives emails from Charles Darwin. In The Skeptics Kid, a family is defined and redefined by the discovery of species thought extinct. In Fat Camp, a longer story I couldn’t put down, a man works at a camp for obese children and taps into something crucial about his life.

As a reviewer, I wanted to be able to place a label on the collection as a whole, "realist", "magical realist," etc, but it didn’t seem possible with this collection. Some of the stories are realist in nature, others are not. A Man Melting melts the boundaries. As a reader, I couldn’t have cared less that A Man Melting, as a whole, refuses to limit itself to simple genre definition. It was simply a joy to read, though often collections that mix genres often make it harder for a reader to engage. Entering each story the reader can be unsure what’s expected of them. (For me, the eye with which I look at a story I know will be magical realist story is different to how I’d sit to read a more Carveresque work. Categories make it easier for a reader usually; we like to know what we’re about to read. ) Yet, A Man Melting is successful in managing to make its varied approaches work. It’s a feat achieved by the writing.

The descriptions and characters in the - technically - realist stories are unusual and so skillfully drawn they transform the ordinary. The writing itself feels as magical as the situation is in a magical realist story.

One of the most powerful stories in the book, Copies, is a great example. The story deals with the imperfect nature of memory and a narrator defining himself in relation to his father: an artist who specializes in photocopying great works of art until they take on a new form and meaning.
"He copied and copied his parents' wedding photo until it looked like two people facing away from each other. He copied and copied his fifth birthday party until it looked as if a mushroom cloud was exploding at the centre, and tombstones were gathered round the edges instead of party guests."
Cliff brilliantly utilizes heightened writing like this in his more realist stories. Conversely, the more fantastic stories in the collection are wry and firmly rooted in the real world. In the title story A Man Melting, the melting man is grounded in his office, clicking his mouse. The detail we can relate to works, as in the best magical realist stories, to send the theme home. Anyone of us, it feels, can melt at any time.

Cliff’s choices skillfully make the movement between genres in the book feel organic. Just as the subject of the book is evolution, it is not just life but the short story form itself that feels like it is evolving as boundaries blur and overlap. What we think is a magical realist story may not turn out to be, and vice versa. In Cliff’s world anything is possible at any time. The reader enters a story never sure what type of story it will be, replicating the uncertainty of the characters constantly thrown into flux. The book is clever like this in many ways, but the ease of the writing never tires the reader by making him or her feel the author is trying to be.

For me, one or two stories in the book, like Parisian Blue, weren’t as memorable as others, although still well executed, but this may be down to some stories in the book being so memorable they simply overshadow ones with a smaller scope. A Man Melting is still exceptional by any standards (and at 308 pages it’s a bargain, as long as two collections.) Cliff is a talent I look forward to seeing more work by. The book encapsulates what the best short story should do: resonate and hone how we see our world.

I often read a book and wonder who I’d recommend it to. The reader who loves magical realism and wacky scenarios? Or the fan of realist stories, full of character and place? A Man Melting is that rare collection I’d honestly recommend to both types of reader. There are stories here I’ll simply never forget.

Read a story from this collection in Sport 36

Angela Readman was commended in The Arvon International Poetry Competition. Her poetry collection Strip is with Salt. She secretly loves short stories. Her own stories have appeared in Southword, Crannog, Fractured West, Flash, Metazen and Pygmy Giant.

Angela's other Short Reviews: Flannery O'Connor "Complete Stories"

Mary Hamilton "We Know What We Are"
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Craig Cliff was born in Palmerston North in 1983. Since then he has accumulated three university degrees, experienced office life in Australia and Scotland, swum in piranha-infested waters, slept at 4,200 metres above sea level, tried to write a million words in one year and learnt there's not much to do in Liechtenstein. His short stories have been published in New Zealand and Australia; one of them made it into The Best New Zealand Short Stories edited by Owen Marshall.

Read an interview with Craig Cliff