Blood on the Photocopier

Ken Nash – Life Raft (Equus Press, 2019)

We live, so we are told, in strange times. I find myself wondering, however, about how strange they really are. We have no wars, no famines, no cataclysmic changes to the way we live our lives.

The best we can manage in terms of epoch-making drama, the creeping omnipresence of the internet and, now, the COVID-19 pandemic, have mostly involved a lot of sitting about on the sofa. If these are strange times, it’s a very boring kind of strange.

I’m reminded of the middle ages, where vast stretches of boredom were broken up by stories of knights on horseback fighting dragons, terrible monsters blighting villages and cursed princesses locked in high towers.

Is our weird lit a similar reaction? A flare of fun in a sea of similitude?

Ken Nash’s Life Raft is a short story collection that promises just that. Twenty-six tales of everyday strangeness. From the very first story, of truckers and their pasts, we enter a world both eerie and banal, where surprise lurks around every cubicle corner.

“The Good Couple” is a story of noisy neighbours with a twist. The same is true of “Conference” where a panoply of conferences multiply without end. In “The Right People” we join the search to get the right people, a mystical new breed of man.

Even at its most otherworldly, Life Raft is grounded solidly in our times. “Five-Headed Satan” features the eponymous devil, but revolves mostly around an artisanal milliner, our protagonist, who wants to sell him his hand-sculpted homburgs. Each is made from locally-sourced felt and is available in a range of velvets.

The patter of crafted, vintage, artisanal, locally-sourced, ethically produced verbiage is new but Satan, we are pleased to discover, has not changed.

The post-apocalyptic “Canada” provides us a workplace romance between our unlikely protagonist and the one woman in the company without horrific facial deformations. It is sweetly told and places the suffering in the background, where, in reality, it always tends to be.

Each of the stories contains a kernel of brilliance, something observed or invented that will change the way you look at the world. The world of Life Raft remains solidly our own, and it’s only through thinking back that I realise how weird it truly gets.

In that way it feels like the perfect book for our times. Nash has distilled the twenty-first century, its simultaneous cataclysm and monotony, into pocket-sized, perfectly pick-up-able form. Perfect reading for tea breaks at the office and mass evacuations.

Joe Darlington

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