The twenty-one stories in Matthew Ward’s latest collection Her Mouth Looked Like a Cat’s Bum (World Audience, 164 pages) are idiosyncratic and challenging. Built primarily out of character studies from society’s outcasts, the stories traverse a nihilistic baseline, where societal norms end and disintegration begins. The opening story, “Bathrobes” is almost a novella at 38 pages, at least compared to the other stories in this book. Within the story is the line that forms the book’s title, and the sense of disapproval that the title conveys is one which clearly sets the tone for the book. The stories are intended to shock, cause the reader to disapprove, frown, but perhaps also see life from a slightly different perspective. The characters are homosexual, naked, playing cards with corpses, lobbing off heads, finding themselves in compromising positions, and getting stoned. There is little sense of structure, and often whole pages are written without punctuation. But this isn’t James Joyce. While there is something of a slice of life, most often the stories highlight the emptiness of human existence as the characters move from dole check to bedsit.
Even when the situations get hairy and surreal, as they very often do in Her Mouth Looked Like a Cat’s Bum, the dialogue comes across as natural. There’s a definite “overheard” quality to it, but there are times, as in “No Ambition” when the conversation is just a little too realistic. It tends to ramble like real conversation (particularly conversation under the influence), and a little artistic shaping might have made the reading experience less painful:
James: “what, like Finland?”
Sally: “Finland is not Scandinavian.”
James: “It’s in Scandinavia…”
Sally, nodding with each second word: “It is not Scand-in-av-i-an.”
James: “I think they allowed Nazis to live there after the war.”
Sally “That’s Switzerland, dickhead.”
James, sarcastically: “’Switzerland Dickhead’…their tourist trade must really be screwed…” And then grandly, chin up: “’Come to Switzerland Dickhead, see the mountains, ski and ski and ski and ski…”’(104-5)
As with most of the stories, the characters are people you probably know in some form or another, and most likely avoid. They are not people you want to spend time with. That said, there is something interesting about plonking the reader directly in the path of the unpleasant, dysfunctional folk that people this book. Sometimes interesting things happen. For example, in “Compassion Takes Time”, the story instantly serves up revenge, both unpleasant and satisfying as victim becomes aggressor.
Ward’s use of metaphor is often original and effective. For example, in “Mowing”: “It’s hot – cicada-scream, heat haze in vertical ribbons hot.” (56) “1975” follows a new boy’s first day at school, where the classroom ceiling with “the sprayed on concrete rough effect look[ed] much like the stalactites that grow in limestone caves and they waited down at me like jaggy multiple tangled fishhooks” (65) Like “1975” or “Mowing”, most of the stories take place at pivotal points in the lives of the characters, but often the denouement is left out entirely. This can be unsatisfying for some readers, and often leaves the reader feeling as if a chair had been pulled out from under them. It seems fairly certain that this is intentional on Ward’s part. It’s an effective technique for the shorter fiction like “Mowing” or “Going Back to You” where the reader’s imagination fills in the gap perfectly. In longer stories however, like “Bathrobes” the work has a tendency to lead the reader all over without concluding in any way. Characters like Gabrielle and Henrik remain shadowy caricatures, and don’t really develop into anything as the story moves on without really moving forward. Characterisation isn’t really the point of these stories though. Rather, Ward takes his reader on a series of wild joy rides, past the derelict and damaged, from Catholic school sadists to the lonely and loveless. You wouldn’t want these friends for dinner, but you might like a laugh at their expense. The wry sardonic humour that fills these pages isn’t entirely unpleasant, though it might be a little sour. Her Mouth Looked Like a Cat’s Bum is an original, interesting take on a world you don’t want to be living in; a funny (at times), racy, and disorienting descent into Hades.