How wrong you can be! The first Peter Hobbs story I read is the one that opens this book, "Deep Blue Sea". It appeared in the British Council's New Writing 13 anthology; I didn't get it then, and I don't get it now. So I began this collection with a slight feeling of dread.
"Deep Blue Sea" is followed by "Afterlife", which could be a touching story about an American divorcée, but its insistence on calling the main character the Divorced Person has an alienating effect. "Movie in Ten Scenes" has a great opening, which it doesn't quite live up to.
So the collection really begins, for me, with the astonishing "Molloy Dies". This powerful interior drama in an ageing academic's head is one of the best short stories I have read in months, if not years - and I read new stories every day. It's about nothing less than the maze-like complexity of the human mind and its lifelong engagement with mortality: a virus that threatens our software.
The meatier stories here are interspersed with shorter tales that offer quirkiness at the expense of substance, and with what look like transcriptions from a dream diary. One or two have a compellingly honest, dreamlike illogicality. At least one, however, seems overembellished, and another reads more like editorialising.
The collection's overarching theme is something like the comparative study of different states of consciousness. But the book escapes being strait-jacketed, thanks to the vigour and unpredictability of Hobbs's imagination. "New Orleans Blues" was perhaps a one-liner in Hobbs's notebook: man goes to sleep in Oxford and wakes up in New Orleans, time after time after time. The result, in which you can see Hobbs working out the answer to the question of "why?", is quite brilliant.
"Dog Days on Monkey Beach" is like an episode of Lost scripted by André Breton. A guy on a tropical island is embarrassed when smoke from his fire attracts passing ships; he writes postcards from the shop in the jungle. Maybe that makes it sound random, meaningless; but it's simply superb.
At his best, Hobbs creates an entire world with its own crazy rules, and you are powerless to resist it. Nor should you. Trust me: the strongest stories in this collection are among the best short fiction being published today.
Nicholas Royle's short-story collection 'Mortality' will be published in October by Serpent's TailReuse content