Analysis of Nick Hornby’s Speaking with the Angel

Speaking with the Angel is the result of editor Nick Hornby’s request to a group of writer friends to help in a charity with which he was personally involved. Hornby is the father of an autistic boy, and part of the profits from the anthology went to a London school for autistic children. This collection, therefore, was inspired by extraliterary concerns. But Speaking with the Angel is atypical in other senses as well. There is no common factor linking the stories of the collection: The pieces do not follow a previously designed set of rules, as in the anthology All Hail the New Puritans (2000); nor do they revolve around the same subject matter, as in Disco Biscuits (1999); nor is there any similarity in the geographical origin of the contributors, as in England Calling (2001).

Nick Hornby / The Times

The volume edited by Hornby is even more exceptional as not all the contributors are habitual writers of short fiction. Of the 12 authors involved in the project (Hornby included), only five of them can claim short story writing among their creative interests: Melissa Bank, Zadie Smith, Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers, and Irvine Welsh. Roddy Doyle has occasionally produced a story for a collective volume, but he is above all a novelist. Robert Harris, Helen Fielding, and John O’Farrell are also novelists. The list of contributors also includes a sports columnist, Giles Smith; a scriptwriter, Patrick Marber; and an actor, Colin Firth. As a result of this heterogeneous group of authors, the stories in the collection stand out for their great disparity of styles and attitudes: Robert Harris’s piece is a political satire, a divertimento. Zadie Smith’s story could have fit into any anthology by young authors of the same period. It fulfills, for instance, the requirements of the New Puritans’ manifesto. Helen Fielding’s contribution deals with the weapons of seduction used by women and could easily have been published in a woman’s magazine. These are but three examples of the different directions in which the collection points, but they show that, from a literary point of view, it is an irregular volume.

Despite the outstanding variety of the stories, if there is something close to a predominant tone in the anthology it is that of controlled transgression. Frank O’Connor (4) argued that the territory of the short story belonged to a submerged population group, but a significant number of the protagonists of the stories in Speaking with the Angel are comfortably ensconced in the middle classes. Many of the characters in these stories have a glimpse of a wild life outside their wellestablished routines: A prime minister escapes temporarily from his security service; two teenagers lose their virginity; a middle-aged man finds a breach in his solid existence in the form of a rat. But things usually return to normal. Only two of the authors in the volume transgress the limits of normalcy and in so doing connect their stories with one of the touchstones of the genre itself, what Claire Larriere has defined as “a voice of rebellion” (196) that characterizes the short story. Eggers writes a brilliant, weird, and fantastic story about a dog who considers his lifefrom eternity. The brio and energy of his discourse manages to transmit a full range of purely physical emotions. On the other side of the spectrum, Welsh produces a grotesque and sardonic story of a young man who is punished after his death for his homophobic attitudes. The Scottish author’s contribution may be thought by some to surpass the limits of political correctness and good taste, but it also dares to play with conventions relating to time and space. The stories by Eggers and Welsh, in short, add spice to a reasonably well-seasoned collection.

Bell, Julia, and Jackie Gay, eds. England Calling. 2001. London: Phoenix, 2002.
Blincoe, Nicholas, and Matt Thorne, eds. All Hail the New Puritans. London: Fourth Estate, 2000.
Champion, Sarah, ed. Disco Biscuits. London: Sceptre, 1999.
Hornby, Nick, ed. Speaking with the Angel. London: Penguin, 2000.
Larriere, Claire. “The Future of the Short Story: A Tentative Approach.” In The Tales We Tell: Perspectives on the Short Story, edited by Barbara Lounsberry, Susan Lohafer, Mary Rohrberger, Stephen Pett, and R. C. Feddersen, 195–199.
Westport, Conn., and London: Greenwood Press, 1998.
O’Connor, Frank. The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story. 1962. Cork, Ireland: Cork City Council, 2003.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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