Wrote for Luck by DJ Taylor: The melancholy of the middle classes is expertly dissected

Taylor’s wit, his gift for surprising with a striking usage and his eye for human sadness make this a consistently superb collection

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The Independent Culture

Wrote for Luck is the first short story collection by DJ Taylor who, having ticked off novels, biographies and criticism, seems intent on working in every medium possible.

The title quotes Samuel Beckett’s gnomic answer to that perennial question: why do you write? Beckett is both a useful and misleading comparison. The overriding mood of Taylor’s 15 miniatures is of cut-glass melancholy culminating in epiphanies of existential gloom. Fabulous opener, “Some Versions of Pastoral”, starts with a deliciously awkward tea-party at the aged Underwoods before a traffic jam of Conradian dimensions congeals despair around our protagonists: “Somewhere in the world… lurked an art you could set down against the armies of commerce and bureaucracy to lay them to waste, but it could not be found in the Underwood’s green-girt garden.”

Unlike Beckett’s “fizzles”, Taylor’s stories sketch recognisable middle-class milieus. There are south London barbecues, dinner parties between rich investors and even richer ones, literary festivals and real-estate quests bringing the aspiring into collision with the crushed. Beneath these quotidian premises a mute war is being waged between the pressures of worldly attainment and passion, which is more often rather than experienced.

The grand theme is loss – of an age passing, of ideals compromised by material concerns, of love not living up to scratch. All are present in “The Disappointed”, set during 1990’s World Cup semi-final between England and West Germany. Gossiping about more successful peers, a group of friends aren’t participants in their lives so much as jealous pundits critiquing them.

His best stories do not just share common tropes, but a common movement: towards a revelation that coalesces images scattered throughout the body of the tale. Taylor is a smart finisher – the Gary Lineker of end paragraphs, perhaps. “Blow-ins” gathers the props of its plot (vague boyfriend, bright scarf whispering infidelity, bumptious local busybody) to turn the quiet desperation of its heroine into a moment of defiant self-expression: “on and on into the beckoning blue-grey horizon, where there was no Mrs Trent-Browne, no Nick, no mocking metropolitan neck-wear, only herself, her books and silence.” 

Not everything is this effective. “Rainy Season” pushes its allegorical emotional weather report a little too snugly. But Taylor’s wit, his gift for surprising with a striking usage (an arm slung “janitorially” around a shoulder) and his eye for human sadness make this a consistently superb collection.

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