The first thing Muller asked me was what I thought of the name Smoke? Excellent, I said. It’s not fire. It’s not ashes. It’s gone with the wind. There’s something cunning about it: smoke and mirrors. Legerdemain. Something more than meets the eye, like being alone in a room with the sound of someone breathing. Smoke: it gets in you, your clothes reek of it. It curls from a mouth. Put your lips around it. Suck. Three to five minutes outside the fire exit doors that say Alarmed but never are. Why? There’s something more going on here. Cunning. Trickery. Smoke and mirrors. Yes, excellent, I said. And in one of those coincidences that are only permitted by life and never literature, while I spoke to Muller I was holding in my hand Thomas Bernhard’s The Voice Imitator, a collection of 104 single-page stories, some little more than a sentence in length. A story about a dead woman’s mail that keeps arriving. One about a plague and the doctor charged on Christmas Day for the deaths of thousands. In all, twenty-six murders, four disappearances, thirteen instances of lunacy, two of libel, eight suicides. Etc. And each has a secret story. There’s more going on. Maybe a whole book’s worth. In a single page. On the small table beside me, in another one of those life-coincidences, I had Simon Armitage’s Seeing Stars, which was on top of Cortázar’s Cronopios and Famas, which formed a tiny altar beside Bolaño’s Between Parentheses, which lipped up onto Lydia Davis’s Can’t and Won’t, which had as a bookmark a folded print-out of James Kelman’s smoke-long ‘Acid’, which featured Pascal on the reverse in my scratchy hand: ‘I have made this letter longer than usual because I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.’ I could tell Muller was smoking. Long pauses between sentences. Filthy habit. Practically taboo now. And so I told him I thought it was probably a good idea as the flames got higher.
Adam Ouston is the judge of Transportation Press’ international microfiction competition, Smoke. Generously sponsored by Fullers Bookshop, entries are open until May 16. Enter here.
Image – Nusrat Durrani. Things We Lost in the Fire, Jhilmil Breckenridge