BOOK REVIEW / The ghostly view from the summit: The worm and the star - by John Fuller, Chatto pounds 9.99

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The Independent Culture
IN a twinkling constellation of tiny stories, rich in logic and lateral thought, John Fuller (a poet whose prose puts most British novelists, old, young or 'Young', to shame) discovers an interesting new paradox of his own. The more diverse his narrators become - from gods to ants, from sexually awakening schoolchildren to interplanetary observers of Earthmen - the greater unity and clarity he achieves.

There is no conventional plot, but the collection grows with every piece because Fuller, being aware of what most novelists forget (that we do know it's just them talking), lets his characters range as far and wide as they want: they give voice to Fuller's concerns in Fuller's gallery, knowing that the shape and substance of their thought will create a coherent internal structure. More than a short story collection, The Worm and The Star takes its place - with, for example, Joseph Brodsky's Watermark and Milan Kundera's Immortality - on the shelf between philosophy and autobiography.

In 'Alternative Reality' Fuller's 'I' describes a creature he has glimpsed inside the ghostly, linear world of a flight-simulation machine, and speculates that such a thing must be the mischievous creation of 'a bored writer of computer programs, or a bored god . . .' However, in 'Machines', the next story, another narrator sees a blue jay on the window-sill and traps it in his hand. Two apparently unconnected accounts in fact amplify one another, guiding the reader towards the next.

Fuller has Robert Frost's gift for depicting the simple situation that suddenly takes us right to the heart of things, and for rounding off a series of physical observations with a sharp and refreshing insight. One speculation as to why a house has been built at the summit of a hill ends with the unsettling note: 'We are the view that it has.' A widow who finds a photograph of her husband with a strange young woman is exhilarated by the experience of jealousy, but 'her old blank loss (is) remorselessly restored to her' when she realises that the woman is herself. A little girl is thunderstruck, midway through her long-awaited birthday party, by the abysmal realisation that the day can never dawn again. At the centre of the book is an enchanting series of mock Middle Eastern fables ('The World of Colonel Abu'), where logic stands in for morality and lives hinge on trick questions.

The best writers know that while there is only one route through the gallery, there are infinite ways to see the pictures. And when John Fuller assembles his little scene, he gives us licence to regard it from whatever angle we wish. The Worm and the Star is a lesson in structure to novelists, a lesson in clarity to poets, and, to readers, a deeply civilised and civilising gift.

(Photograph omitted)

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