A History of Sarcasm
 by Frank Burton

Dog Horn Publishing
2009, Paperback
First collection

Frank Burton is from Lancashire.  He has written and performed poetry as well as writing short fiction. The World, taken from this collection, has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

Read an interview with Frank Burton

"Duncan Grassmore was arrested for impersonating a police officer.  He was arrested by his identical twin brother, Declan."

Reviewed by Pauline Masurel

Sarcasm is the art of telling lies for laughs, and it is also about bonding over recognition of the sarcastic wit. We laugh because we share the knowledge that the joke is the lie (and the lie is the joke). The title story's narrator, Dr Stephen Rent, describes how his grandmother initiated him into the experience of sarcasm. He also postulates that sarcasm is The Dark Side, where things are in opposition to the conventional mindset. Hence, what could be more natural than his completing the second half of this autobiographical essay as a cat?

Fiction is also a liar's art, and this book contains some whoppers, starting with the introduction by an academic mentor of Frank Burton who fakes his own fictionality. True or bluff?

The story Joost is a fictional lecture about a fictional language called Gargardian.
"There is no moral to this story. That's what I like about it. In many respects, Gargardian is a pointless language. It is also very beautiful."
Voom and Bloom is just such a pointless, yet beautiful thing. It uses lyrical language to describe a scenario and then totally undercuts itself in a parody of a dream that makes us doubt the veracity and viewpoint of the story. Which is almost a shame, because I was enjoying the strange delight of these individuals who are liquid. However, this doesn't invariably happen in Frank Burton's stories. For example, on a similar theme of human liquidity, The Day She Melted is a delicate flash fiction with no hint of a sarcastic punchline.

Inevitably, much of the writing in these stories is rather knowing and self-aware. It reminds me at times of the self-reflexiveness and experiments with form and the boundaries of fact and fiction in the short short stories of Dave Eggers. Some readers will enjoy this, others find it irritating. In Monica Gets Messages the main character is receiving secret messages through the media. The story sends its own (reassuring) secret message by way of covert capitalisation to the reader. It would be a touching story without the hidden subtext, but in this context the playfulness is pleasing and adds to the overt story being told. For me, all that really matters, is whether the means of telling complements or augments the story, rather than detracting from it. On balance I'll always applaud bravery, but if pushed too far I reserve the right to say that I "can't be doing with it". Luckily, this collection interests me far more than it ever gets my goat.

The Irony diversifies away from sarcasm to consider....(entirely unexpectedly)...irony. It has multi-layered truths about a crime fiction author who writes about victims who all meet their end in horribly ironic manner. It folds layers of reality and identity back and forth over themselves to reach its own ending. The book ends with another metafictional work entitled The Nature of Human Happiness by F.R. Pseudovich. It contains sections called Introduction, Chapter 1, Conclusion, Index and Notes. It's a brave move, and has its funny moments, such as the list of other 'Philistine Publications', but in the end it distinguishes itself mainly by flaunting its quirk. It's good to see these experimental lunges amongst the more conventional story-shaped writing, but I found other pieces in this book stronger, more original and engaging.

This book is obsessed with lists and also somewhat obsessed with obsessions. Multiple Stories investigates what it's like for there to be more than one of you. Fittingly it does this in a number of different stories, some about twins, some about doppelgangers, some about spiritual doubles. The somewhat surreal stories in this collection can sometimes be gentle and whimsical, as in Walter Walks Sideways, about a man (called Walter) who decides to do just that. (Don't expect a punchline. That's the story). But at other times the obsessions become violently destructive, at least to a character's social well-being if not physically as well, as in Aabehlpt (about a character who tries to alphabetisise his whole life) and The Wondering,
"Now I'm awake with the sun in my eyes, and I'm lying on the concrete path beside the bench where one of the lobsters has superglued me to the ground. The little fucker's up a tree, and he's woken me by flicking acorns at my head. Fine way to start the day."
And that, ladies and gentleman, is sarcasm. "Fine way to start the day. Fucking lobsters."And if that raised a smile then you'll probably enjoy this book. Even if it didn't grab you, you might want to check out this collection anyway. Frank Burton is a new lobster on the block, and I don't think he intends to stop chucking acorns, making lists, obsessing about twins or.... Well, bully for him, I say. Doesn't he sound like a nice boy?

Read a story from this collection on LauraHird.com

Pauline Masurel Don't talk to me about Pauline Masurel.  Just because she:
1.    writes short stories
2.    sometimes reads them aloud
3.    performs with  a group called Heads & Tales
4.    has a website at unfurling.net.  
Like we should care.  Anyone can write lies; all the words are in the dictionary.

Pauline's other Short Reviews: Erin Pringle "The Floating Order"

Jim Crace "The Devil's Larder"

Mark Budman, Tom Hazuka (eds) "You Have Time for This"

Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities

Carson McCullers "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe"

Jeffrey Eugenides (ed) "My Mistress' Sparrow is Dead"

Kasia Boddy, Ali Smith, Sarah Wood (eds) "Let's Call
the Whole Thing Off"

Ben Tanzer "Repetition Patterns"

Paul Meloy "Islington Crocodiles"

Dan Rhodes "Anthropology"
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Author's Recommended Bookseller: Dog Horn Publishing


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Dave Eggers "Short Short Stories"

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