Reviews / March 2016 (Issue 31)

Confronting Time: Royston Tester's You Turn Your Back

by Kerri Lu


Royston Tester, You Turn Your Back, Tightrope Books, 2014. 120 pgs.


Cha contributor and associate editor, Royston Tester's latest short story collection, You Turn Your Back, is a vigorous and daring exploration of the limits of form and character. It is a demanding work, often asking the reader to witness and engage with situations of emotional duress and physical violence. It is also a work that rewards.

Tester's question at the heart of this imaginative collection is a step towards pursuing the greater project at the root of all fiction: what happens when we turn our backs against the possibility of the strange and new? And what is there when we turn toward a reality that is impossibly far yet within reach from the one we lead?

"Choosing England was her way of saying I don't care" opens the first story, "Dotty." But Linda, the protagonist, does care. An eighteen-year-old who goes abroad after nearly failing to graduate high school, she finds herself wooed, and soon, in an affair with a married man. Eventually, even after he abandons her and she undergoes a dramatic personal transformation—from "Abba" to "Sex Pistol" as the text has it—Linda still appears to hold onto some fantasy of staying with him, right up to her decision to re-ink a tattoo reminder of him halfway through the painful multiple sessions to remove it. Her decision comes as a surprise but is not shocking. Knowing Linda in her naiver, tender Abba days helps us interpret her reversion to her past, despite now being more Sex Pistol and jaded about love. To this end, Tester reveals her decision almost nonchalantly, towards the end of the story, with no real narrative judgment or time provided for the reader to process it.

This effect—of being surprised by a character's action that would otherwise have been accepted or even expected elsewhere—is prominent throughout the collection, in large part thanks to the author's bold formal experimentations in manipulating narrative time. He not only layers and collapses dialogue and scenes from different time periods and locales, but he drives non-linear chronology to an extreme, mixing narrative texts with the same voice from a different time period, encyclopedia entries, ghostly voices and one-sided dialogues.

In the best of these moments, Tester is able to replicate a cinematic experience in the text, cutting from scene to scene in much the same way that film moves between visual cues. Success in a literary equivalent is holding the reader's attention through several intermingling storylines without visual reminders, only through textual changes and distinctly different voices running in parallel. The author accomplishes this in several stories, the most intricate and complex being "Primavera," a story about a filmmaker who, in encountering problems with his marriage, pursues both a mother and daughter romantically in different time periods while reminiscing about earlier memories of his wife. Tester splices scenes from disparate eras together, which converge and speak to one another. Several scenes are even "split" down to virtuosic line-by-line jumps between vast contexts and narrative voices. This is an effective technique that structurally enables the story's exploration of the cyclical nature of life and love, while also challenging the same collapse of time in art and creative works.

This self-referential brand of intertextuality also helps establish the collection as simultaneously locked in a distant setting while always staying just within reach, a balancing act accomplished through the abundance of specific locations, named objects and distinctly regional or contemporary voices: from a train to Birmingham in 1954 industrial England ("An Island in the South Pacific") to the Spanish Coasts in 1989 to British Columbia in 1997 ("Primavera"). The voices, too, are always categorical. In "Blanks" and its linked story, "More Than Anyone On Earth," we find texts from a website made in 2001 and vignettes of postcards with witty social criticisms. One can imagine these voices and mementos as borne exclusively of a certain context, but otherwise immediately recognisable as part of a broader, more human and worldly concern: a struggle to be heard, understood and responded to.

In fact, the characters in this book, despite their different particularities, are all empathetic. Like Linda, they all care—immensely, obsessively, secretly—about themselves, about their past or future and, most of all, about each other. Yet they are often placed in situations where this concern is impossible to communicate, or is misinterpreted by the ones who need it the most. Tester's characters often talk past one another other, as in a culturally distant father and son in "Face," or are tormented by the past and the lingering presence of long-gone friends, like in the paired stories "Blanks" and "More Than Anyone ..." For example, the aforementioned website in "Blanks" is where the narrator first meets a friend who commits suicide, and the postcards are where he continues his one-sided letters to his deceased companion. Many of the characters are emotionally tormented or in a state of frenzy, trying to come to terms with and taking action towards preparing for a reality different from their own. Despite the tremendous level of contextual specificity, this theme is universally captivating, and one that the most interrogative literature returns to again and again.

However, there is a darker side to this interrogation: choosing or rejecting a divergent path comes at the cost of destroying the path not chosen, which in the title story, "You Turn Your Back," involves what appears to be inevitable violence. The story centres on Mrs. Shooter, an elderly woman and Agnes, the abused seventeen-year-old girlfriend of Mrs. Shooter's neighbour Mofo, who is a member of the same bike gang her husband and sons belong to. Mrs. Shooter, after disowning the men in her family, is private and nervous, never directly confronting Mofo about the physical and sexual abuse she knows Agnes suffers. Instead, we hear her internal monologue imploring Agnes to leave or directly asking her concerned questions. During one of Agnes' visits, she tells Mrs. Shooter, unflinchingly, of being "screwed by eight fellas" against her will and asks for advice on how Mrs. Shooter handled her "boys": 

"Told them they were on their own, love."
"You left."
"Oh no, Agnes," she said. "I stayed and got rid of them."
"I don't want to do that, Mrs. Shooter."
"Turn your back? No dear, I don't suppose you do. I'm not very proud of it ..."

Mrs. Shooter's final advice, which Agnes receives sceptically, is to "stay with Mofo ... Save Mofo from himself" so the younger woman will not end up living "one hell of a lonely life" like that of the older lady.

This exchange comes following a harrowing opening in which Mrs. Shooter tries to reach Agnes, bloodied and crawling on the floor of Mofo's house. After the conversation, the scene immediately cuts back to a tragic conclusion. As is the case elsewhere, Tester leaves few options for readers to find redemption from the finality of this ending—there is truly no turning back, no more text at the conclusion of the path we have chosen to follow. Just as there is no returning to a lost friend, a former lover, a marriage or the beginning of a train ride to Birmingham. The formal innovations in manipulating narrative time, for all their aesthetic delight, only serve to heighten the undeniable force of linearity, which for many of Tester's stories, end in a lack of resolution or fulfillment.

You Turn Your Back on the story, reader, accuses the title—but perhaps hope lies not in the return to a beginning, but the act of turning itself. For the reader to "turn back" to the text itself, to bear witness, even to be complicit in bringing forth that which is difficult. For there exists another, more powerful violence in apathy and forgetting. The very act of reading enables linearity, but a reader of this work is actively responsible for piecing together the storylines which exist outside of the bounds of narrative time. Between these differing timelines, Royston Tester's work leaves space for the reader's agency, where we, like his characters, can try to process, confront and interpret these insurmountable complexities—turning back to the text, again and again, in our own time.


You can read a review of Royston Tester's previous collection, Fatty Goes to China, here.

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