Vicky Grut, Live Show: Drink Included (Holland Park Press, 2018)
By Lynnda Wardle
“Perhaps it sounds uncaring” says one of the characters in Vicky Grut’s fine debut collection Live Show: Drink Included, “but I’m beginning to wonder whether some people don’t just seek out relationships where they can be unhappy. I think people get addicted to pain.”
These fourteen stories examine this addiction, where pain and difficulty seem to bond (or bind) people together as strongly as love might. The inspiration for these pieces is found in the ordinary and everyday: in offices, kitchens and hospitals, on city buses and foreign journeys; not necessarily exotic places, but rich nevertheless in the potential for the strangeness and humour of this collection to play itself out.
Grut has been on the writing circuit for some time, with stories in collections by Granta, Picador, Duckworth and Serpent’s Tail and Bloomsbury in the UK, and she lectures in creative writing at the Open University, London South Bank and the University of Greenwich. In her first collection, she turns her attention to the banality of work-speak and the platitudes that fill the spaces between people who cannot tell the truth because it might affect their jobs or relationships. Her descriptions catch both the sense of twenty-first century living and the nuances of emotion that give these stories their humanity:
“In the street they passed through a flurry of pigeons and suddenly everything —looked like the detail from an illuminated manuscript: a barrow of fruit glowing with grapes and persimmons; a man eating a plum the colour of dried blood; streaks of sun coming through the clouds like gold … I will miss him. I will want to pick up the phone. I will dream about him and wake up crying. It will be unbearable.”
This collection could be described as a celebration of the mundane gone weird; the stories open with characters jogging away on the treadmill of life, and then—deliciously for us—something is tweaked; the tempo speeds up, and before we know it, as in the tale ‘Downsizing’, someone who is at work earning an almost satisfactory living, is trapped on a ledge outside his office building as though walking a gangplank, arms wind-milling to stop himself from falling to his death. In that moment when a character turns their head, looks away, trusts someone against their better judgement, the story shifts and we are in new territory. It becomes a game for the reader to second guess the way in which each story will step off the edge of ordinariness, and this is both the joy and potential downfall of the collection as we wait for the punchline to be delivered each time in the final paragraph.
However, the story that fittingly closes the collection, ‘Into the Valley’, stands above the others in its refusal to deliver that neat punchline. This collection should be bought and shared for all the pieces, but most especially for this last one, a tender tale about Grace, an elderly woman dying in hospital. Her daughter-in-law, Vee comes to visit, along with other members of the extended family; to sit with her and wait as she runs out of days. The story is simply told and captures the emotions sitting with someone you love as they live their last painful hours:
“At some ridiculous level I find myself disapproving her tenacity, as if it’s a kind of greed, a lack of acceptance. I don’t think I’d struggle this hard, not even at the age I am now. Perhaps I don’t love life enough. Perhaps I’ll feel differently when I get to eighty.”
This then may be the purpose of all stories and why we want to read them, and it certainly feels true of ‘Into the Valley’, coming at the end of the collection: to turn us away from the mundane, distract us briefly from our struggle with debt and divorce, disappointment and desire, and to remind ourselves of the single most important and un-ordinary truth of our existence; that our lives (however we live them) are too short before they are over.