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Thirteen Shades of Black and White

by Michael Bryson

Michael Bryson populates his first story collection with a familiar platoon of the urban alienated. There are old and young, boys and girls, all sleepwalking through relationships that don’t quite qualify as such, and sex that happens frequently but fails to bind. All of this is numbed by the ever-present background noise of TV. Disaffection and its literary soulmate, irony, fuel these stories, and while a handful are accomplished expressions of the form, too few of the 23 work for the whole collection to be considered a success.

Bryson does show an admirable fearlessness in taking on a wide variety of voices, including that of a 15-year-old girl, an imprisoned violent offender, a female squeegee kid, and some young male loafers of various stripes. And when his minimalist narratives work, they work well. For example, “Boys and Girls, Girls and Boys” tells of an old man being dumped by the narrator’s randy grandmother and the two men’s subsequent night out on the town. The result offers a humorous and subtle set of surprises.

But in most other cases, Bryson favours glibness over thoughtful structure, an approach that works only if the prose casts its own line-by-line spell. And while there are some good lines here – “I’m the kind of guy who remembers a lot of things and wishes he didn’t” – there’s not enough to sustain the entire collection.

It’s not the brevity of these short stories that limits their effect, it’s their frequent incapacity to transport the reader, to conjure their own convincing flavour. Thirteen Shades of Black and White showcases Bryson’s disparate reach and contemporary voice, writerly assets that have yet to be wed to other necessary ones.