Book Review: The Syllabus of Errors by Ashley Stokes

syllabus-of-errorsFailure is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is the end of the beginning. This, in a nutshell, is the message of Ashley Stokes’ new short story collection: The Syllabus of Errors: Twelve Stories of Obsession, Loss and Getting in A State.

Stokes draws on a well-established literary tradition in these stories. We are in a world of misfits, alienated young men: clever losers. It is easy to imagine that seminal text of the intellectual loner, Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, sitting on the author’s book shelf. Dostoevsky’s underground man was of course not the first literary character in which unhappiness, alienation and intense rationalism sit side by side. But he can fairly be called the forefather of all the twentieth and twenty-first century fictional misfits that followed.

And what all these young men – it nearly is always men – share is their compulsion to talk after their social mishaps. They become most fully themselves after things have gone wrong, when their first attempts at life have failed.

The two strongest stories are “Storming the Bastille” and “The Syllabus of Errors”. In the first of these, a young couple are on holiday in a cheap Parisian hotel. The girl, Nikki, had indicated she would sleep with the young man, Greg, if he would take her to Hotel de Crillon. This is like saying I will sleep with you if you take me to the Ritz: the Crillon is one of the world’s most famous hotels and certainly among its most expensive. What makes this story stand out is its almost gentle ending: the young man manages briefly to drop his ridiculousness, and sees the girl as she really is.

In “Storming the Bastille”, a Nazi scholar, Ludo, meets Claire, a girl he tried to date in high school. There is the same sense the loner distances himself from his wilfulness: he sees Claire distinctly at the end, and the pain of it does not make him sharper, cleverer, but fills him with a rich melancholy. Ludo imagines living his life again, taking a different road than an academic interest in the Nazis, being therefore less repellent to others, and becoming more attractive, romantically successful. Other readers may be most interested in A Short Story About a Short Film, a story almost wholly written in footnotes, or in I Remember Nothing, one of the most formally traditional of the stories.

The Syllabus of Errors was published in February 2013. Buy it at Foyles.