Dan Rhodes announced himself on the literary scene back in 2000 with the brilliant Anthropology, a unique collection of 101 stories, each 101 words in length, dealing in a deadpan comedic manner with the everyday bitter disappointments of relationships. In the six books since that auspicious debut, Rhodes has kept his idiosyncratic mix of darkness and comedy, yet he's also crept slowly towards the mainstream. His last two novels, Little Hands Clapping and This Is Life verged on the commercial and even dabbled with the possibility of a happy ending – something that you feel would've been anathema to the hilariously disenchanted writer of Anthropology.
You get the feeling from Rhodes's prose and subject matter that there's something of the contrarian about him, which perhaps explains why he's now returned to the format of Anthropology for this new, scintillating collection of ultra-short stories. The tone is very similar, although it's structurally less rigorous, with (by my reckoning) 79 stories ranging in length from a few short lines to an almighty page and a half.
My local branch of Waterstones was recommending this book as a Valentine's Day present last week, which made me laugh out loud. It would take a very particular kind of romantic partner to appreciate this collection of acerbic and downbeat tales (although "wife-features", to whom the book is dedicated, is presumably happy enough).
In the vast majority of these stories, the course of true love does not run smooth and, more often than not, the male narrator is jilted unceremoniously and unexpectedly by a cruel partner. In "Cold", for example, our narrator agrees to be cryogenically frozen before his wedding day, only to be awoken years later and find that he has been replaced by a more handsome man in the meantime. Elsewhere, in the likes of "Worst", "Brave" and "Anniversary", the narrator's world is destroyed by his wife in a couple of short paragraphs, with a frankness that is shocking and yet somehow highly snigger-worthy.
Time and again, the institution of marriage and the idea of true and undying love come under fire. While that might sound slightly samey, in fact the range of tones is very impressive. In "Happiness", the saddest story here, the narrator's lack of self-worth borders on the pathological, while at the other end of the spectrum, in "Carbon", the sweetness of a couple's relationship, while they wait for a lump of charcoal tucked under their bed to turn into a diamond, is really rather heart-warming.
Taken individually, the stories invariably raise a chuckle, usually accompanied by a wince and an involuntary acknowledgement of the truth behind the sloppy stuff of romance. But more impressively, when taken as a whole, Marry Me amounts to a bleak yet funny world view, as if P G Wodehouse and Graham Greene had got together to form a greetings card company.