Ugly Stories for Beautiful People feels like a book in its own little world. I don’t mean to suggest that its stories never joined the party – a glance at the list of previous publication credits will reveal that they did – but there is a certain sense that this book stands to one side, that it’s doing its own thing, as it were. Part of that sense comes from the cover, which is striking in its minimalism, and quite unlike any recent book cover I’ve seen, from either the independent or mainstream press (not to mention a fine example of how attractive even a home-made cover can be).
More than that, there’s the intent of the collection itself. To quote the covering letter that James Burr sent with the review copy, ‘[t]he stories are generally inter-linked and were conceived of as a whole – hence the lack of contents page… I want people to read them in a certain order; long story after short; humorous after grim.’ Whilst I’m not sure that having a contents page would spoil the way we experience the book, Burr achieves his aim, as the book feels complete in itself: there is a rhythm to the way the tales are arranged, and they are indeed linked – not by setting or characters (except in one instance); but by a general theme, which may be broadly described as people coming (or refusing) to perceive that reality is not as they thought.
Sometimes this happens quite literally, as in Life’s What You Make It, where a woman’s happy, comfortable life is intruded upon by what appear to be experiences from another version of her life, one with much more hardship. Which life is real, and which illusory? I’ve read my fair share of stories in which someone’s life is literally rearranged around them – you probably have, too – but I don’t remember reading one as thrilling or disorientating as this.
At other times, the theme is exhibited in a more mundane (though not necessarily pedestrian!) way. An example is Blue, one of the book’s longer entries. It follows Kate, working as an English language teacher in Barcelona, and her encounters with a mysterious group of tattooed individuals. The story takes a while to get where it’s going; but, when it does, it proves an interesting character study: the tattooed group are frustrated at people whom (they believe) don’t see the suffering in the world, and their aim is to redress that in a rather direct way. Burr’s examination of the morality of this view is pleasingly nuanced.
Sometimes the theme is somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, as in The Dada Relationship Police. The stability of another life is under threat, this time that of Matt, who begins to receive strange phone calls and notes signed by the titular ‘police’, telling him that his partner is cheating on him and his relationship is over. And this is not quite a self-fulfilling prophecy, at least not totally. The ending may raise a smile (as it did with me) but, if it does, the smile will be wry.
Interspersed with the longer pieces are shorter ones, which are generally more humorous. Perhaps the funniest is It, a shaggy dog story in which people literally disappear up their own backsides and the world is saved by Tom Paulin. If this sounds too silly, I can only urge you to give it an even break, because it’s highly amusing. It also has a serious point to make to anyone who has ever strung a sentence together (a point that this reviewer has taken – so he hopes!). Also pulling off that mix of humour and seriousness is Mutton Pie, about a man’s encounter in a pub with an older woman. The tale refers to ‘the self-delusions that we wrap around ourselves to make life more bearable’ – true enough. But it also suggests that those delusions may not be all that bad, not if they work for us – truer still.
The collection begins and ends with a story called BobandJane and its postscript, about a couple who are so very much in love (Burr’s prose conveys this superbly) that, yes, they don’t perceive reality as it is – and, at the very end, their bubble may just be starting to burst. Not just a neat story, it serves as a summation of the whole book, a book which covers a range of human emotion, precarious relationships and equally precarious realities (and there may not be much difference between the two); and whose intriguing constituent parts form a complete, intriguing entity.
Ugly Stories for Beautiful People by James Burr. Paperback, 276 pp, £11.99. Published by Corsega Press.
This review first appeared in Whispers of Wickedness.