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Fascination, by William Boyd

When eye contact spells a lack of focus

Love, and the desperate scrabble to secure it, is familiar terrain for William Boyd. The 16 short stories gathered into his third collection, Fascination, put that pursuit into a variety of contexts. Boyd runs the gamut of extra-marital affairs, from the urgently ambitious to the pathetically opportunist. Decisive errors and lamentable failures, formative liaisons and casual flirtations, pack these tales. Boyd also explores familial ties beyond the sexual imperative, even noting the affectionate bond between an old writer, on his uppers and his unwell cleaner.

Several of these tales are excellent. "The Mind/Body Problem" unearths the money-spinning racket of a weedy lad who works in a gym, but gives a good twist to his seemingly cynical dating of an aspirant body-builders. "The Pigeon" gently works through the dilemma of a Chekhovian figure, writing stories on his estate, whose mistress in Paris has become embroiled with his best friend. "Loose Continuity" is Boyd's best use of two parallel narratives: Gudrun derives satisfaction from her architectural work in Los Angeles, while recalling the bittersweet memories of her amorous apprenticeship in the Weimar Bauhaus.

"The Woman on the Beach with a Dog" is his leanest, yet most optimistic, offering. A sudden, charged encounter forces both solidly married lovers into a bewildered contemplation of the practical difficulties in a long-distance affair. This story pivots on one of Boyd's short-cuts: "the merest narrowing of her eyes" betrayed that she had registered his rising desire.

Eyes do reveal much, but I found Boyd's repeated use of eye contact as a motif for unspoken desire a tad cumbersome. Within the intimacy of a short story, where success so often depends on the conviction of the emotional contract, this feels slightly lazy and is perhaps symptomatic of a lack of tautness.

More concerning are the stories congested by too many voices or an over-elaborate structure. "A Haunting", for example, contains some nice comic touches as an accidentally moustachioed architect goes off the rails in pursuit of low-paid working girls, but Boyd wraps the breakdown into an elaborate historical conceit which dissipates much of the tension. My biggest disquiet about Fascination is that only about a third of the stories are distinctively good. This is not enough. Most are adequate; one ("Beulah Berlin, an A-Z") is just terrible.

In a climate where story collections generate a quarter of a novel's sales, there is an imperative for writers to publish what is really worth reading. Helen Simpson, William Trevor or Adam Thorpe are exemplars of the distilled, potent craft in a medium whose brevity allows for no slack. Boyd excels at long, baggy, novels like The New Confessions or his satisfyingly robust saga Any Human Heart. Either he should concentrate on bigger canvases, or his publishers should select the miniatures with greater rigour.

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