There is a certain irony that this review of Jack Remiel Cottrell’s Ten Acceptable Acts of Arson and other very short stories will be far longer than any of the stories contained within this very fine debut collection which are, indeed, very short.
Only a handful of the stories stretch out longer than a page (and, even then, barely); some are just two sentences in length; others are seemingly standalone sentences that appear to have been strung together randomly like a series of entertaining but unrelated punchlines.
Whether Cottrell’s stories fall under the category of flash fiction, microfiction or something else entirely may be up for debate amongst purists. What isn’t in doubt, however, is his talent. Here is a writer with a voice that is as distinctive as it is confident; who both recognises and leans into the absurdity of life, but is equally adept at embracing its beauty and its sometimes aching sadness.
Alongside Rebecca K Reilly’s Greta and Valdin, Ten Acceptable Acts of Arson ranks as one of the year’s most purely entertaining debuts, announcing a droll and original new voice in New Zealand literature.
Twists are a hallmark of flash fiction, and Cottrell’s an expert. In story after story, he takes the reader on an unexpected yet satisfying detour, often throwing new light on everything that has gone before. It’s a huge part of both the charm and the fun of this book.
Another hallmark of flash fiction: precision. There’s not an ounce of fat on these stories — every word counts. And while Cottrell makes it look easy, it takes hard work to craft stories that appear this effortless. With economy and precision, he manages to bring characters and whole worlds into sharp focus with an impressively minimal word count.
None of the stories here is long enough to overstay its welcome, and perhaps this collection is saying something about Gen Z’s notoriously short attention span. What’s more likely, however, is that Cottrell simply wanted to share his distinct point of view with the rest of the world — and I, for one, am certainly very glad that he has.
Ten Acceptable Acts of Arson is a wide ranging book, both in form and content: Faeries. God. Hell. Robots. Time travel. They’re all in here.
Some of the stories are in the form of lists, others are wonderful send-ups of the kind of mumbo-jumbo communications that can often be found circulating throughout bloated institutions.
If there is a connective tissue to each of these disparate stories, it is that Cottrell’s voice is unique; he has a strong capacity to surprise his audience, sometimes in truly remarkable ways.
On a first reading, it’s Cottrell’s keen sense for the absurd which stands out: In ‘Work and Income gothic’, a WINZ office is given a gloriously Gothic do over, replete with levitation, incineration and an appropriate sense of dread. In ‘They probably play the viola’ the author is seemingly dragging Jacinda for her Covid-inspired reminder that we’re all in this together with the droll inclusion of that whakatauki she is so fond of: ‘He waka eke noa.’ And Cottrell does a terrific lockdown-inspired spin on drug dealing in ‘The flour dealer’, wherein the narrator becomes an illicit supplier of the white stuff — just not the white stuff that you would normally expect.
On a second reading, however, it’s the unexpectedly poignant pieces that stand out, featuring a terrific collection of memorable characters, all deftly drawn: the intellectually underestimated rugby player in ‘The prop forward’ who’s mistakenly written off as ‘a thicko, spending his life bashing heads with other thickos’; the young student who can’t help herself from eventually always saying the wrong thing in ‘Trying’; an anxious robot couple in another Covid-inspired piece ‘The android’s dream’.
In one of the list stories — ‘An abridged taxonomy of little-known ghosts: A to L’ — one of the ghosts is called Agraphorum imago: the ghost of unfinished stories. An example of this ghost gets his own standalone story later on wherein a character from a dying author’s unfinished book lies curled up at the end of their hospital bed, hoping that the author will hold on long enough to complete the book they are in before they die.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Cottrell has much to say about writers and their process. Another list story, ‘Where writers get their ideas’, is terrifically funny and inventive. (For the record, my favourite was Number 9: Spite, followed closely by Number 3: Theft.)
Cottrell whakapapas to Ngati Rangi, and by his own account he is just beginning to explore what that means to him. Race only explicitly rears its head in a couple of the stories, but both are stand outs. In ‘Reasons why I called in sick rather than go to the mihi whakatau for new employees last Friday’ the narrator explores the complexities of having Maori whakapapa without a familiarity with the language or the culture and how that can lead to getting shit from both Maori and Pakeha alike.
‘Bombay Polo Club’ is told from the point of view of an Indian protagonist out on the town on a Saturday night with a bunch of white mates. When they all end up at the titular Indian-themed bar, he observes the ‘fake colonial décor’ with bemusement: ‘A century of struggle picked over like carrion, brought across the ocean to appeal to young white people.’
Writers telling stories from cultural points of views other than their own has become a minefield, but this feels both believable and right.
In the final piece, ‘There are no right words’, the narrator confesses:
I fell into writing, tripped into it the way I so often tripped over my awkward, gangly limbs. Except rather than picking up grazes, I picked up a little ability and a lot of passion. It’s dangerous to have things that way around.
It feels very much like the writer could be talking about himself here, except that Cottrell has much, much more than a little ability as his book triumphantly shows. He finds the right words again and again and again.
The pleasures contained within Ten Acceptable Acts of Arson are many and varied. Some stories may even cause you to reassess your life.
Bring on the follow-up.