Talking About It, by Tim Parks

Not much to talk about as Parks' stories are more predictable than perceptive
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The Independent Culture

Talking About It is an unhappy collection of short stories in which men are generally brutish slaves to lust, and women, the vain creatures, fear having babies because of what it will do to their figures. The stereotypes perpetuated are often depressingly predictable, as are the stale descriptive flourishes that announce them - the wafts of perfume, the see-through panties. A novelist of note (Europa was Man Booker-nominated in 1997), Tim Parks is not at his best here, his formidable authorial power flashing only occasionally through the yuckiness.

In this collection of 14 short stories, three alone surprise and satisfy. Manchester-born but resident in Italy since 1985, Parks is a sharp observer of expatriate life, and "Changing Address", in which a couple (she a tough New Zealander, he a kvetching New Yorker) struggle to renovate an apartment near Milan, is a witty and knowing portrait of cultural dislocation. The pair, who consider themselves committed Socialists, find themselves drawn into elaborate scams for tax evasion. Parks mocks their greed and guilt, but with compassion. He places people within their larger social context extremely adeptly. All the more frustrating, then, that he restricts so many of the other stories to claustrophobic rooms where men take their mistresses, and that so many of the characters are less like fully imagined people and more like walking, talking genital organs. Especially the women.

Parks can do puerile well. Restricted to an isolated story, this Houellebecqian laddishness might seem like a technique; played out across a whole series of stories, it looks embarrassingly like a compulsion.

To return to the high points: there is, among all the unredeemed male angst, one touching piece called "Globetrotters", about an itinerant couple and the slightly creepy man who latches on to them, becoming a surrogate child figure. Here, Parks manipulates the readers' feelings with short-story skill reminiscent of Roald Dahl's in Kiss Kiss.

The eponymous "Talking About It" also stands out. Two men meet to play squash and swap tales of their adulterous liaisons, one describing them with guilt-free relish, the other emotionally traumatised. Whether all their talking about it means either of them is doing it is left ambiguous, and the hackneyed quality of the men's descriptions of their trysts means the story addresses the shortcomings of erotic literature. A pity so many of the other stories here represent them.