Dave Weaver, The Black Hole Bar. Elsewhen Press, 2014. Pp. 241. ISBN 978-1-908168-49-8. £9.99/$17.99.Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
We are in a near-ish future of technological advance and social decline. Grumpy and discontented Simon Trentham, whose marriage is disintegrating and whose job as a industry journalist is simply well-paid hackery, is in London Docklands Spaceport to kill a few hours nursing his grievances before boarding a flight to Titan in order to research yet another PR piece justifying his company’s exploitation of Saturn’s moon. In a dingy bar he stumbles upon a writers’ group who are about to embark upon one of their regular contests. As an aspiring writer himself, he joins in. Although some of the group feel that he is an outsider pushing himself into a venue where he’s not wanted, and his status as a “real” professional writer is simply as “an apologist for ‘The Man’” (p. 21), he reads one of his stories and impresses enough of the group to be allowed to stay. The contest continues.
The majority of the book is therefore eighteen stories “as by” Simon and the group, plus two added stories in an epilogue to settle the tie for first place after all stories are “marked”. After each reading, we get a short section in which the story is “critiqued” by members of the group and in which we—and Simon—begin to see the relationships and histories of group members uncovered. Simon himself becomes attracted to one of the group, and in the end has to make a decision which may affect his life-direction.
The group members—Ben, Kate, Bernard, Carl, Juliet, Janice, Zandor and Daniela, are, deliberately, contrasting and interesting characters. The stories themselves are—as I read them as stories—fairly typical of the kind of fiction written by reasonably but not greatly talented “writing group” members. Few of them could stand out in a magazine or anthology, despite (or maybe because of) their twists or faux-poignant endings, though some, such as Ben’s “The Laughter Room” (showing a world in which comedy has become the new pornography: a world ironically brought all the closer between the time I read the story and the time I write about it), are relevant and witty extrapolations. Others are, as we learn more about the world we are visiting through the banter and conversation between the characters, much less (in the terms of the overall story) far-fetched sf and much more “slice of life” realism. (Kate’s “Digger” or or Zandor’s “The Last City” are examples here.) This is, of course, a world in which space travel and social reversals into dystopian attitudes, customs, or politics, are not imaginative playfulness but mundane history. We come to realise—and this is why it is worth persevering with the book—that some at least of the stories are (in the way amateur fiction often is) unconscious or semi-conscious expressions of the real feelings and lives of the narrators, and that the book’s author wants us to realise this. It’s this which makes it less a collection of short stories than a thought-provoking novel.
This is a trick of outright metafictionality which is pretty difficult to pull off, and I’m not entirely sure that Weaver is wholly successful: there are clichés which seem to be simply clichés, but still, there are others that seem to highlight a character or situation. This reading, though, (if I’m right about it, and even if I’m not it’s an interesting one to try out) makes The Black Hole Bar a much more substantial novel than seeing it simply as a mosaic of Weaver’s own stories with a linking text: what used to be called a fix-up. Without giving too much away, by about two-thirds of the way through the book it is clear that there is a definite plot to the narrative beyond man-wanders-into-a-bar and stories-are-told. Some of the characters are more than they first appeared to be. I came to the end of the book feeling that the narrator was a much more interesting character, and that the world in which he lives was a much more interesting world, than I had felt at the beginning. This seems to me to be a sign of a book that worked.