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Ugly Stories for Beautiful People
James Burr

- But I want to be loved for myself ...
- So you came here, eh? Bit of an oxymoron there, eh Clarence. Bit of an oxycretin, bit of an oxyimbecile.

Reviewed by Mithran Somasundrum

This collection could just as easily have been called Ugly Stories For Unsettling Contented People, for to enter the world of James Burr is to step into a region where reality is fluid and to be happy, or at least settled, is to be in incomplete possession of the facts. 

Once you enter, reality fractures in surprising and innocuous places. Your computer monitor tries to engage you in conversation. Worse still, its philosophical propositions begin to appear scarily relevant to your own life (Fragments of a Schizoid Dream). Or perhaps the biased Rorschach blots you've showing your patients come to say more about your own wobbling state of mind (Blot). It might be something as impossible as a phone call from a disturbed-sounding friend, despite the fact that you can see that friend, phoneless, on the other side of the room (Life's What You Make It). Or as simple as going to bed with a woman who, in a certain light, looks like your ex-girlfriend (Ménage à Beaucoup). Perhaps even now you are discovering memos from The Dada Relationship Police (inside crisp packets, on restaurant bills), suggesting your relationship is doomed (and a worm of self-doubt starts to burrow). Alternatively, it might be that your local, a smokey old men's pub, has become the haunt of porn star women demanding joyless porn star sex (Bernie Does Camberwell). 

The best advice for the unwary traveler in James Burr-land is to not notice too much. If you're in Barcelona, stick to the tourist trail of Gaudi buildings, Miro sculptures and "clean, glossy franchised bars." Don't let your glance stray to the edges, to the Arab junkies, "the homeless slumped as if dead in the doorways," and least of all to the scarred, blue-tattooed figures shuffling along. Pay too much attention to them and they'll start to notice you (Blue). For in James Burr-land reality-fractures often spring from no more than a way of seeing. It's probably also not a good idea to enter into a relationship, as this is a place where love slides quickly into obsession, or otherwise takes on monstrous proportions (BobandJane). 

It may just be a testament to the careful arrangement of these stories (this is a collection meant to be read in order, and is without a contents page for that reason), but it was the shortest tales which for me had the greatest impact -- the delusions and, ultimately, kindness revealed in Mutton Pie; the pace and linguistic inventiveness of The Byronic Man; and best of all from this collection, It, which is a gem of a story, at once hilarious and horrific, a story which leaves you envying the author its premise while admiring the perfect balance with which that premise is developed. In contrast, some of the longer pieces here, such as Blue, Ménage à Beaucoup, and Fragments of a Schizoid Dream, didn't deliver as much despite their greater word counts. All three deal with the state of mind of a central character, and part of the problem is that those states are lingered over repetitively to the detriment of the stories' forward motion. 

Overall though, the best test of such a collection is the success with which the author inveigles you into their world. In this case, I finished the book in the food court of a shopping mall, put it down, looked around me, and waited for the cracks to show.

Watch the author read one of the stories from this collection on YouTube.com.

Mithran Somasundrum was born in Colombo, grew up in London and currently lives and works in Bangkok. He has published short fiction in Natural Bridge, The Sun, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and The Minnesota Review among others, and has stories forthcoming in Zahir Tales and Greatest Uncommon Denominator.

Mithran's other Short Reviews: "Best American Mystery Stories 2007"   


PublisherCorsega Press/Lulu.com

Publication Date:2007

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Author bio: James Burr has written stories and novellas for numerous magazines and anthologies. He taught English in Barcelona for two years before gaining an MA in Anglo-American literature at University College London. He now lives Worcester in the UK, and is currently working on his first novel, Deus Ex Machina.

Read an interview with James Burr

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