I’ve never really understood the notion of “guilty pleasure” when it comes to individual reading preferences. If one occasionally likes to indulge in horror or sci-fi, what’s wrong with that? (And given that we live in a society in which the majority of people’s reading habits extend little further than reading texts and Tweets, it’s a marvel that people are even reading at all.) Yet I felt something akin to guilty pleasure while reading Matthew Kneale’s collection of short stories, Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance. Part of me felt I shouldn’t be enjoying these stories as much as I did. I say this because, for one thing, Kneale’s prose style is decidedly flat and not especially interesting. There is none of the usual beautiful and poetic turns of phrase or unexpected word choices that often characterize more literary fiction. (Ben Fountain’s Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, for example—another collection I recently read—explodes with his brilliant use of language.) There was also none of the usual “challenge” that sometimes accompanies more literary works: stories in which next to nothing happens and are so nuanced and subtle that you wonder at the end of it: “Did I miss something?” Or novels and stories that we secretly admit are slightly boring, but we force ourselves to read anyway because of the salutary benefits we believe we’ll reap in the long run. No, Kneale’s collection is a very quick and easy read, and there is nothing subtle about these stories either: we in the West are bad, the things we complain about are petty, and we’re guilty of not being particularly interested in the sufferings of those in developing countries.
So why did I enjoy these stories so much? Apart from being a refreshing breeze to plough through (in spite of its 277 pages), what I found beguiling was Kneale’s use of—and I hate to have to say it because of the connotations typically associated with this word—suspense. In many of these stories, the protagonists often make bad, spontaneous decisions, and we can’t help but squirm uncomfortably as the repercussions unfold, eager to find out how it will all end. In “Powder,” for instance, Peter Pelham leads a reasonably comfortable life as a London lawyer (although he does resent not being made a full partner in the firm he works for). One night, when he chances upon a gym bag full of cocaine, he makes a decision that forever changes not only his life but also the lives of his entire family: Instead of reporting it to the police, he takes the bag home and becomes a coke dealer himself.
Similarly, in “Weight,” Benny is working in Xinjiang province in China; but before returning to Texas, he and his fellow-American coworkers take a bus trip around the province. When they spend the night in some anonymous Chinese city, Benny and his friends are smitten with the local Uygur woman working the front desk of their hotel. (Uygurs are, incidentally, a persecuted Muslim minority in China.) Freshly divorced, Benny is besotted with the woman; he can’t stop thinking about her. And the next morning, when he and his friends board the bus, Benny makes the spontaneous decision to get off, find the woman, and offer his hand in marriage. Surprisingly, after conferring with her family, she accepts. And because of the astonishing ease with which this “transaction” takes place, we, along with everyone else around Benny, are led to believe the obvious: that Mina is merely using Benny for his money and a green card. Just like when Peter Pelham becomes a cocaine dealer, here too (and in many of these stories), the reader finds him/herself telepathically whispering to the protagonist, “Don’t do it, don’t do it.” But what brings this story to a more complex, satisfying end is its irony: that once the newlyweds begin their new lives in the United States, Benny also begins to have misgivings about Mina. He becomes highly suspicious of her and guardedly jealous, and he begins to immure her in the house. The life he had offered her now turns out to be even more restricted and unhappy—indeed, even more persecuted—than the one she left behind. It’s only at the end that we understand that Mina’s intentions were pure all along.
Another story heavy in irony is the first one, “Stone.” Guy Winter’s daughter, Tania, has a new friend at school she really admires. But the most impressive thing about her is her parents’ sense of adventure and their willingness to travel to exotic places, avoid tour groups, and really get to know the people. Not to be outdone, Guy takes his family on a trip to China. For much of their journey, they are chaperoned and coddled by the insularity of their package tour. But at some point, they decide to break away and finish their trip—à la Tania’s friend’s parents—on their own: the first of many bad decisions they make. They end up taking the wrong train, they get off at the wrong city, a mysterious man they nickname Eeyore starts following them around everywhere. When the mother’s jewellery goes missing, the culprit seems obvious. They report the crime to the police, and Eeyore (we realize later) is forced to sign a confession. But just as the Winters are about to leave the city, they discover the missing jewellery packed in one of their bags. But for them it’s too late to redress the situation: they didn’t have time (they had, after all, a train to catch); it would also be terribly embarrassing, not to mention awfully troublesome. It’s while they’re on the train platform that they learn that Eeyore has been executed. But what saves this story from slipping into anecdote are the deeper implications of the ending: the burden that the Winter family now carries as a result of their mistake, each of them suffering in his or her own way, until, many years later, they begin to regard what happened long ago on that trip to China as little more than a distant memory or a dream: “Something far away, that was not quite real, and that could not touch them.”
After having read a number of these stories, a pattern soon emerges, its quintessence most succinctly captured in the story “Sound.” Although not exactly a knockout, this very short story seems most emblematic of what many of the pieces have in common and how they are put together: We have our Westerner protagonist (Colin) with the good job (a writer for a music magazine). His life is pretty good (he’s just bought a flat in London), but not quite perfect (the flat is in a slightly sketchy part of town, and his relationship with his new girlfriend is still rather tenuous). One night, while walking home, he hears footsteps behind him. He turns around and feels threatened by the dark-skinned, menacing-looking man following him. His “small crime”? He admits he’d feel less threatened if the man were white. He brushes off the incident, but he encounters this man on several more occasions and, like all the other protagonists in Kneale’s collection, he feels increasingly anxious about the situation. His bad decision? After seeing the stranger flash what he believes to be a knife, Colin also goes out to buy a knife and learns how to use it in self-defence. The irony? When at last the two men encounter each other again and Colin pulls out his knife, the stranger tells Colin to get away from him; and it is then, upon hearing his voice, that Colin realizes he’s met the man before, at a party. His name is Rick, he’s an artist, and he lives in a studio just up the street from Colin. Eventually, the two men become friends, yet there will always remain a guarded quality to their friendship.
While the moralistic undertone remains the same throughout, not all the stories are quite this formulaic. “Pills,” for instance, is told from the perspective of an Ethiopian mother whose child is suffering from an unnamed illness. When she hears of some Western tourists travelling through the area, she and her daughter set out to meet them to try to beg for some pills—Aspirin—that she believes will cure her daughter. Similarly, “Leaves” is told from the point of view of Julio, a young Columbian boy whose family is forced to relocate after “gringo planes” dust not only the nearby cocaine fields but also the crops and livestock of local villagers, causing everything that's come into contact with the spray to wither and die. And “White,” the last story, is told from the point of view of a Palestinian suicide bomber on his way to detonate a bomb in Israel.
While these stories are somewhat heavy-handed in their message, and the writing somewhat flat, what I gleaned from them in terms of their construction made this collection, in the end, quite enjoyable, even entertaining. But given the more serious, moralistic tone of this book, I’m not sure Kneale would approve of these stories being considered mere “entertainments.” But then again, maybe that only underscores what he points out throughout the book: that Westerners view the tribulations of those in the developing world as “something far away” and “not quite real.”