By Nick Jackson

Reviewed by Gary McMahon

Where to begin?

It's taken a lot of thought to come up with my opening gambit regarding Nick Jackson's debut short story collection. Like the tales in the book, I wanted my first few words to be economical, to the point, and memorable.

So here goes:

These stories are about nothing at all, and they are about everything you could ever imagine.

Is that vague enough? I'm sorry if it is, but it's all I have because this book just blew what was left of my mind out of my ears.

Rather than examine each tale in turn, I'm going to concentrate on the cumulative effect of the work as a whole. Because that's what Visits to the Flea Circus is: a whole, living, breathing entity.

The book consists of a handful of intense studies of a particular moment in the life of a character. The space between heartbeats when a decision is required as to whether or not a person should shed the skin of the ordinary, the familiar, and transcend the boundaries of what they know as their lives.

Unfailingly, the characters in Jackson's stories miss their chance at transformation, and return none the wiser to the comfort of their individual realities.

There is a real sense of these people striving for something that they are completely unequipped to define, and even when they are afforded a peek at what they seek, they fail to recognise it--or, if they do, they turn away in fear or simple confusion.

These stories are, for the most part, small, up close chronicles of paths not taken. Opportunities not realised. Promises (to oneself) never kept. At his best, Jackson reminds me of Raymond Carver - wielding a beguiling simplicity of language that is almost impossible to achieve - or even of my own hero Charles Bukowski, at his most mellow and forgiving. When he takes wing, he really is that good.

The highlight of the collection is Little Gods, the study of an ageing Spanish nobleman awaiting trial for misuse of his power. The man drifts between past and present to recall some of the events that brought him to his current situation. Sad, beautiful, horrific and perfectly sublime in its subtle effects, the story put me briefly in mind of Werner Herzog's masterpiece, Aguirre: Wrath of God. These two works share the same South American setting and explore similar themes; and both manage to evoke emotions that are unique and troubling.

Jackson's prose has a kind of stark, stripped-down beauty and unflinching honesty that goes beyond mere literary tricks and clever wordplay. The writing is simple, direct and real. There is a cumulative power here, each story adding another layer to the overall gestalt, and I would recommend that the book be read in as close to one sitting as can be managed.

In conclusion, a phrase from the title story gives a tantalising sense of this collection: They are moments of existence; not individuals as such. And like the character of the father in this story, who stares at a parrot's feather through the lens of a microscope, some readers might see nothing of note. Others will witness small-scale miracles, and be thankful that they picked up this book. I know I am.

Visits to the Flea Circus by Nick Jackson. Tpb, 182pp, £5.00. Published by Elastic Press, 85 Gertrude Road, Norwich, Norfolk NR3 4SG, UK

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