Any Other Mouth
1. 68% happened.
2. 32% did not happen.
3. I will never tell.
That is the opening to Anneliese Mackintosh’s fiction-blurring, (semi-) autobiographical short-story/novel hybrid ‘Any Other Mouth’. And if that doesn’t get your attention, then surely my tortured attempt to categorise the book will pique some interest. It’ll be well-deserved interest, too, as Mackintosh’s debut is funny, clever, occasionally irritating but always entertaining, like that friend you keep around for her great stories, even though you might sometimes want to tape her mouth shut. Not to mention that at one point she uses the phrase ‘Holy Guacamole!’ – you’ve got to respect that.
All the stories in this collection, it soon becomes clear, are about a woman named Gretchen, caught at various times in her life, usually in the midst of messing something up. She’s a fairly standard figure: a young woman from a not-quite perfect childhood, who’s been through the teenage rebel phase and the vegan student phase but hasn’t quite figured out how to be a grownup yet. So far, so humdrum. But as Mackintosh skips back and forward through her avatar’s stumblings (and it’s fairly obvious that Gretchen is, at least partly, a surrogate for her author), more details start to seep out: references to suicide attempts and mental health issues; memories of a sexual assault; the slow loss of a father to cancer and dementia. The woman-child caricature is gradually filled in with experiences that ring unexpectedly true:
”Your dad’s still barely sleeping,” she told me. “And when he does, it’s not on the bed any more. It’s too painful for him.” She paused. “Last week, I got up in the middle of the night to check he was okay. I found him in his armchair, head thrown back, with all the lights on, and the windows open.” Her voice cracked. “There were moths flying round his head.”
My knuckles, still holding the duvet, had turned white. “Mum? Are you okay?”
”I’m okay,” she said, with a forced laugh. “I’ve bought some new outfits and I’m going to show my face at the pub again soon, put on some make-up, let everyone see I’m doing fine.”
I remained silent.
I could hear Mum breathing, the way she kept swallowing away gulps of air, and I knew she wanted to say something. Eventually, she whispered: “I still love him, you know.” And then she began to cry.
With those words, I knew that Dad was about to die.
So, not just your standard twenty-something protagonist and this is not your standard book either. Ostensibly a series of short stories, the ubiquitous presence of Gretchen produces an interconnectivity that ultimately makes ‘Any Other Mouth’ as much a disjointed novel as a short story collection. Mackintosh is doing fascinating, innovative things with form here, the book’s disordered chronology resembling a mirror that has been smashed, fractured and messily reassembled. Locations are returned to, characters recur in new contexts, memories are recalled, forgotten and recalled again, gaining context and resonance with each new appearance. Because, of course, there is nothing messy about the way these stories are placed together; the format frees it from the usual a-to-b narrative demands but each story works together to create a whole.
Occasionally this gets a bit much. You can see the writer’s cogs turning, and the steps in her performance, which makes it difficult not to long for a bit less try-hard-ness. At one point she follows a story in which one character suggests that Gretchen should switch from writing in the first person to the third – ‘Otherwise everyone will think it’s about you’ – with a story that does indeed switch to the third person. There seems to be no reason for this other than for Mackintosh to show she can do it, as if to point out that she can do traditional fiction, she just chooses not to. This show-off tendency is also present in Gretchen herself, Mackintosh’s avatar sometimes betraying her creator as a bit too knowing, a bit too ‘I know I’m not cool but it’s ok if you think I am.’ There’s a narcissistic streak a mile wide running through the book and those who are easily irritated by navel-gazing should probably run a mile, lest they suffer through passages like this:
And so, since you’re my imaginary lover: this is how it would go.
We would be in bed. It would be ten, maybe eleven o’clock. The sun would be shining through the blinds. I would be curved against your body, which would smell of coconut and sleep.
I’d be a little groggy, because – knowing me – I’d have had one or two drinks too many the night before. But even though I’d be tired, due to the booze, I’d also be restless, due to the Prozac. I’d be blinking quicker than usual, sniffing and scratching to use up energy, and I’d be desperately trying not to scream wake up wake up wake up in your left ear.
But I wouldn’t make a sound. I’d swallow the words and count my own breaths instead.
Still, I’m not sure that a novel/memoir that swings between narcissism and self-loathing is out of place or unwelcome right now. Was it that long since you last, for example, tweeted something inane and then instantly regretted it? Me neither. Of all the books on the shortlist, ‘Any Other Mouth’ is the only one that feels like it’s really connected to and commenting on life and society right-here-and-now. It also manages, for a book that features infidelity for revenge, alcoholism and depression amongst a slew of other torrid subject matter, to remain remarkably funny and optimistic. It has a vitality in its writing and subject matter that gives it a completely different energy from anything else here and that’s hugely exciting to read.
(Opinions are all my own and do not reflect the views of the Saltire Society panel.)