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Sunday, 16 April 2006

Review: Otherwise Pandemonium, Nick Hornby (2005)

Nick Hornby’s short story ‘Otherwise Pandemonium’ appeared first in 2002 in McSweeny’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. This time it appears in a Penguin paperback along with another short story, totalling 56 pages. It’s a nice little edition in the publisher’s 70 Years series, put out to celebrate the milestone — Penguin was founded by Allen Lane in 1935. Other authors in the 70-book series include Nabokov (‘Cloud, Castle, Lake’), Jorge Luis Borges (‘The Mirror of Ink’), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (‘Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen’) and Kafka (‘The Great Wall of China’). This volume is No. 3 in the series. I bought it recently at an Angus & Robertson bookshop along with two others in the series — all for $5.

The title story is about a 15-year-old and it’s narrated in the first person; he buys a $50 VCR that has magical properties: it can fast-forward and rewind network TV. This means that he can see into the future. He bought it in a Berkeley, CA, second-hand electronics store to record TV sports shows while he participates in the Little Berkeley Big Band. The story starts by saying that it will describe how he lost his virginity. It’s humorous and light. But the new-old VCR doesn’t bring him any joy at first:

And none of it was any use to me. Who wants to know stuff before it happens? People might think they do, but believe me, they don’t, because if you know stuff before it happens, there’s nothing to talk about. A lot of school conversation is about TV and sports; and what people like to talk about is what just happened (which I now can’t remember, because it was three games back, or the episode before last) or what might happen. And when people talk about what might happen, they like to argue, or make dumb jokes; they don’t want someone coming in and squashing it all flat. It’s all, ‘No, man, Shaq’s not looking so young any more, I think the Pacers can take them.’ ‘No way! The Pacers have no defense. Shaq’s going to destroy them.’

While fast-forwarding he finds out something important, however. He decides to go and see the guy in the electronics store, who had used the machine before him — there had been something weird about him.

He tells Martha — this girl in the band, who he likes — about the VCR. They watch. They make love. They plan to spend more time together.

He’s writing for the future where we — his readers — are, after the Time of the Static. It was something really important.

The second story in the volume, ‘Not a Star,’ is about a family with a 23-year-old son who, they discover, is acting in porn films. The narrator, Lynn, is the mother. She’s seen the video, which had been dropped in their letter box by a meddling neighbour. Dave, her husband, is disgusted and won’t watch it. An amusing story with a quiet, goosebump-making thrill at the end.

  ‘What about AIDS?’
  I got up, put my dressing gown on and hammered on Mark’s door.
  ‘What?’
  ‘What about AIDS?’
  ‘Go to bed.’
  ‘No. Not until you’ve talked to me.’
  ‘I’m not going into and details. But I’m not daft.’
  ‘You’d better give me a few more details than that. That’s not enough.’
  ‘Thanks a bunch. There is absolutely nothing whatsoever to worry about.’

This story is set in the U.K. and even Little Britain gets a mention! It’s a funny story, so it’s apt that the best British comedy show should pop up. Lynn is talking with her sister, Helen:

I wanted to laugh at her, but I couldn’t laugh at that, because I knew what she meant. It was sort of what I felt when I saw the cover of the video: that there was something about the photo that wasn’t in my language, or wasn’t aimed at my age group. I feel that way sometimes when Mark’s watching that comedy programme when some man dressed as a woman says ‘Yeah, but, no, but…’ and he just starts laughing.
  Now I think about it, this whole thing with Mark is like an episode of Little Britain, because I don’t know whether it’s funny or not.

Their mother comes back from the shops and the conversation turns to her dead husband, his death four years previously, and her distraction at the thought of it. Lynn realises that there are worse things in life than finding out your son is in the porn business.

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