Known Unknowns is Emmett Stinson’s debut collection of short fiction. His work first came to my attention when I reviewed Issue One of Kill Your Darlings, in which Stinson’s stand-out story ‘Clinching’ was published. That story is included here along with 13 others of varying length.
As any writer will tell you, beginnings are everything. The opening line is the story’s bait. It must entice you, get you caught on that hook. And Stinson is a master at this. After putting this collection down I found that many of the opening lines had made such an impact that they were still dancing through my thoughts. Here’s an example: ‘I never wanted to be a murderer. You see, my mother drove me to it.’ The clever beauty of these lines is loaded with more meaning than we initially understand.
Endings, of course, are just as important. You want to leave the reader poised at a moment in time that is appropriate to the narrative but also memorable. You want the story to linger in the reader’s mind, to occupy their thoughts long after the book has been put down. It needs to be satisfying but not necessarily conclusive. Endings are tricky things, more difficult to write than they appear. For example, Tim Winton is, in my opinion, a brilliant writer whose endings never quite work. But Stinson’s endings are punchy, well written and display the skill of his craft. Even the stories I found less engaging, like ‘Dry’, has a killer last line.
In this collection Stinson – who only moved to Australia from the United States six years ago – predominately inhabits the terrain of post 9/11 Washington DC. With sharp, keenly-observed prose he captures the everyday nuances of life against the backdrop of larger crises like the September 11 attacks which feature in several of the stories. The danger of dealing with the minutiae is that if the characters or the narrative are not engaging enough it all becomes a little mundane. Unfortunately there are several stories that fall into this category, skimming the surface in an unsatisfying way that doesn’t allow the reader to fully connect. ‘The Last Men’, for example, which is one of the longer stories is also one of the weakest.
But for the most part Stinson’s stories are superb. He is at his best in the shorter pieces. Here the writing is tight and spare; the characters live and breathe on the page as he explores their internal emotional conflicts. Indeed his characters are often damaged, disillusioned and flawed. They see the world as a bleak, unforgiving place. ‘Great Extinctions in History’, for example, shows the main protagonists moving through the landscape of their privileged lives consumed by a kind of hopeless misery, a sense of futility about life and what little it has to offer them. They are both lost in different ways, unable to find themselves or any real purpose.
‘All Fathers the Father’ is an original work with a distinctive voice told from the perspective of a car crash survivor who is uncertain about the real identity of the man purporting to be his father. ‘Apex’, which deals with a young boy’s trauma over the death of a friend, is an absolute gem – stark, brutal and beautifully constructed. And ‘Local Knowledge’, the longest story in the book, reels you in, carries you along and, in its final pages, packs a powerful punch.
‘Sickness unto Death’ is a potent story and the only one not set in contemporary times. It takes place during the Black Death outbreak and Stinson gives the narrator an uneducated voice of the time. While I would suggest some of the phrasing and language used is not historically accurate, ultimately it didn’t matter. The story instantly transported me to another place, another time where the world has gone mad. You see the ending coming, but it is shocking nevertheless.
Known Unknowns will be released in June.