Ten Acceptable Acts of Arson and other very short stories
by Jack Remiel Cottrell
(Canterbury University Press, $30)
There is a certain irony that this review of Jack Remiel Cottrell's debut collection will be far longer than any of the stories contained within it. Only a handful of the stories stretch out longer than a page (and, even then, barely).
Whether Cottrell's stories fall under the category of flash fiction, microfiction or something else entirely may be up for debate amongst purists. What isn't in doubt, however, is his talent. Here is a writer with a voice that is as distinctive as it is confident; who both recognises and leans into the absurdity of life, but is equally adept at embracing its beauty and its sometimes aching sadness.
Twists are a hallmark of flash fiction and Cottrell's an expert. In story after story, he takes the reader on an unexpected, yet satisfying detour, often throwing new light on everything that has gone before. It's a huge part of both the charm and the fun of this book.
Another hallmark of flash fiction: precision. There's not an ounce of fat on these stories — every word counts. With economy and precision, Cottrell manages to bring characters and whole worlds into sharp focus with an impressively minimal word count.
Ten Acceptable Acts of Arson is a wide-ranging book, both in form and content: Faeries, God, hell, robots, time travel. They're all in here.
On a first reading, it's Cottrell's keen sense for the absurd which stands out. In "Work and Income Gothic", a WiNZ office is given a gloriously Gothic do-over, replete with levitation, incineration and an appropriate sense of dread. In "They probably play the viola", the author is seemingly dragging Jacinda for her Covid-inspired reminder that we're all in this together with the droll inclusion of that whakatauki she is so fond of: "He waka eke noa." And Cottrell does a terrific lockdown-inspired spin on drug dealing in "The flour dealer", wherein the narrator becomes an illicit supplier of the white stuff — just not the white stuff that you would normally expect.
On a second reading, however, it's the unexpectedly poignant pieces that stand out, featuring a terrific collection of memorable characters, all deftly drawn: the intellectually underestimated rugby player in "The prop forward" who's mistakenly written off as "a thicko, spending his life bashing heads with other thickos"; the young student who can't help herself from eventually always saying the wrong thing in "Trying"; an anxious robot couple in another Covid-inspired piece, "The android's dream".
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In the final piece, "There are no right words", the narrator confesses: "I fell into writing, tripped into it the way I so often tripped over my awkward, gangly limbs. Except rather than picking up grazes, I picked up a little ability and a lot of passion. It's dangerous to have things that way around."
It feels very much like the writer could be talking about himself here. Only Cottrell has much, much more than a little ability as his book triumphantly shows. He finds the right words again and again and again.
The pleasures contained within Ten Acceptable Acts of Arson are many and varied. Some stories may even cause you to reassess your life. This ranks as one of the year's most purely entertaining debuts, announcing a droll and original new voice in New Zealand literature.
- Reviewed by Victor Rodger
Victor Rodger (ONZM) is an award-winning writer and producer of Samoan and Scottish descent. He convenes the Māori and Pasifika creative writing workshop at the International Institute of Modern Letters. A longer version of this review will appear on www.anzliterature.com.