Valentine's Day massacre: Dan Rhodes returns to the super-short story form that made him a cult favourite
Here, we publish some of the best short stories from Rhodes' anti-romance book, Marry Me - and the author reveals his soft side to Alice Jones.
Don't be fooled by the Valentine's Day publication date or the swirly gold typeface on the cover, Marry Me is no twee anthology of wedded bliss. Each of the 79 short stories is about marriage but the picture they paint is less romance, more Relate. Averaging around 100 words each – none is longer than a page and a half – they rattle through anti-climactic proposals, wasteful weddings, henpecked husbands and cuckolding wives. There are deaths, tears, hats and quite a lot of whispered bickering.
Rhodes has been working on his marital tales – some bleak, some beautiful, all darkly hilarious – for 15 years. He started in the late Nineties, when he was writing his debut collection Anthropology, 101 stories of love, sex and relationships, each one exactly 101 words long. When it was published in 2000, he had a few left over that didn't fit the word count, so he kept them in a box. And kept on writing.
In the meantime, his friends kept on getting married, providing him with regular doses of fresh inspiration. "I'm more interested in the elephants in the room," he says. "The expense of it all is something I find really depressing. I've known so many people who have been pressurised by the older generation into having big weddings that they didn't want. At a time in their lives when they could really do with having a bit of spare cash floating around, they have to spend it all on calligraphy and lilies."
Marry Me was also inspired by a personal milestone: his 40th birthday. "I was worried that I would suddenly become some kind of appalling grown-up and that I wouldn't be able to write these silly stories any more," he says. "So I frantically went through my box and got the book together".
Silly stories is one way to describe them. But to Rhodes' fans – he's adored by comedians and critics alike – they are tiny haiku-like jewels. "Typically I'll write one in one setting," he says. "But I might go back to it several hundred times and tweak it." As a result, they pack an elegant, occasionally devastating, punch.
Marry Me marks Rhodes' return to the super-short form that first made him a cult favourite. In between, he has written five novels including Little Hands Clapping set in a German suicide museum and, last year, This Is Life, an Amélie-style Parisian saga. They have won him numerous awards but his preferred position in the literary world is that of the wry, occasionally troublesome, outsider. In 2003, he was named one of Granta's 20 Best Young British Novelists though he had yet to publish a novel, thanks to Fourth Estate dropping his debut effort. He didn't appreciate the accolade and when half of his fellow listees refused to sign an open letter against the Iraq war, he declared his retirement from writing for good.
Happily, Canongate picked up Timoleon Vieta Come Home, his shaggy dog tale about one gay man and his mutt, and he has remained with the publisher ever since. "It's a bit like being married. You can't be with someone for a decade and not have the occasional bickering session." The last one was over a reprint of This Is Life that removed the original elaborate gatefold cover. He took to his website to tell fans not to buy it and had it withdrawn from sale. He keeps a running blog of his worst reviews and has largely given up on touring ("Very little fee. And I don't like being away from home.") and "cringe-worthy, earnest" literary events.
He is now on another hiatus from writing, working in the real world for a while. Previous "day jobs" include stints in a whisky distillery and a Waterstones warehouse. He won't reveal his current employment except to say that it is physical and "the opposite of writing". In 2008 he was working in the stockroom of Lush on Princes Street in Edinburgh when he won the Clare Maclean Prize for Scottish Fiction and was dismayed to see the headline, "Soap shop worker wins book prize". "I thought it was really condescending. But I've never been very far from a day's work because writing leftfield fiction for an independent publisher isn't quite as lucrative as a lot of people seem to think it is", he says. "At the moment I can't foresee a time when I've got enough time and energy to get stuck into another book, really."
The truth is, a softie's heart beats beneath the bearish author exterior. And for all of Marry Me's beleaguered cynicism, Rhodes has domestic bliss of his own to attend to. When he began writing it he was "a terminally single bloke in his twenties". Then Anthropology came out and, in the manner of one of his stories, set in motion a remarkable chain of events. One Saturday in San Francisco a young woman called Emmily skipped Spanish class and went to the library instead.
"She picked Anthropology off the shelf, read it and decided to marry me," says Rhodes. A few weeks later he passed through the city on tour, they met and nine months later were married in a "cheap as chips" ceremony at City Hall. A photograph of them exchanging vows stands in for an author picture on Marry Me's back cover. They now have two sons – Arthur, five and Eddie, five months – and live in Buxton. "That's why I wrote Anthropology really – in the hope that I would send it out into the world and my future wife would read it," says Rhodes. So there is such a thing as a happy ending, after all.
'Marry Me' is published by Canongate (£8.99)
Whenever we were invited to a wedding, my girlfriend would be fiercely critical of even the slightest display of extravagance. 'Remember what Goethe said,' she would whisper, at the first sign of ostentation. 'One should only celebrate a happy ending; celebrations at the outset exhaust the joy and energy needed to urge us forward and sustain us in the long struggle. And of all celebrations a wedding is the worst; no day should be kept more quietly and humbly.' I was inclined to agree, so when she accepted my proposal I looked forward to a simple ceremony among our immediate family and very closest friends.
One thing led to another, and a year later I found myself in a white suit, riding a bejewelled ostrich across a castle drawbridge and into an enormous room packed with guests, plenty of whom neither of us particularly liked.
Shortly, an eighteen-horn fanfare heralded the arrival of my bride. She rode in on a white horse with what looked like an ice cream cone stuck to its head in an attempt to make it look like a unicorn.
'What would Goethe have made of all this, then?' I asked her, as we dismounted and prepared to exchange vows.
'Ah, who cares?' she said, glowing with delight.
On our honeymoon my wife lay beside me, writing a letter to her best friend. When she had finished, she asked me to check it over. I was glad to help, so I carefully read it through. Her handwriting is very neat, and her spelling and grammar are pretty good, but there were one or two minor glitches for me to point out. 'See here?' I said. 'You've written "the most biggest mistake I have ever made" – but it should just be "the biggest mistake I have ever made".
And this bit, where you've put "it feels like a life sentance", that should be "sentence".' I'd only caught one more error. 'Where you've written "I dont know what I did to deserve this", you need an apostrophe in "don't".' I explained that it was a contraction, and that it was the job of the apostrophe to take the place of the missing letter. She looked very serious, nodding just a little as she took it all in.
My wife gave me a big hug, and told me I was going to have to be very brave. 'I'm really sorry,' she said, 'but I just don't think I can carry on being married to you.'
I couldn't understand why she would walk out on everything we had. 'Is there somebody else?' I asked.
'No,' she said, 'there isn't. But I would really, really like there to be.'
I asked my girlfriend to marry me, and she said yes. I couldn't afford a diamond, so instead I handed her a lump of charcoal. 'It's pure carbon,' I explained. 'Now, if we can just find a way to rearrange the atoms . . .'
She stared at the black lump in her palm, and I began to worry that ours was going to be the shortest engagement in history. She smiled. 'We'll put it under the mattress,' she said. 'Maybe we'll squash it into a diamond over time.'
It's been there ever since. We check up on it every once in a while, and it never looks any different. I think we would be a bit disappointed if it ever did.
Starlight told me she had decided to call time on our marriage. When I asked her why, she said I had become too predictable. I begged her to reconsider. 'I don't know what I would do without you,' I sobbed.
She shook her head in exasperation. 'I knew you were going to say that.'
As our wedding day approached, my fiancée gently suggested that I get some counselling for my body image issues. 'But, darling,' I chuckled, 'I don't have any body image issues.'
'That's the problem,' she said. 'Just look at yourself.
'You'd better get some – and fast.'
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