Like cakes at a primary school fête The Correspondence by J.D.Daniels is of variable consistency.
Described as a series of letters, the book is a collection of short stories. They are interlinked through their preoccupations, the ideas on which they focus, religion, disillusionment, the search for meaning in an increasingly fractured world.
The central character in each story, although not explicitly the same person, is likewise a point of stability amid changing venues. Across the book there are stories based in the USA, Spain, psychological conference, merchant ships and academic institutes.
The closest recent comparator I can think of is David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide, another collection of short stories linked by a theme. Although I don’t think The Correspondence is similar in quality to Vann’s work.
Daniels’s debut is not a poor book but are two central issues preventing it reaching the level of better collections, such as by Carver or Alice Monro.
The first of these is variability of writing. At points the writing is excellent, in particular when Daniels is being comedic. I was reminded of an American Howard Jacobson at times in the biting blackness of the world view. For example, here’s one character describing his father’s reaction to being told to drink less by a priest.
“I find it difficult to believe that the Creator of the Universe gives a fuck if I drink a cold beer on a sunny day,” my father said. “Those people say sugar, the just got to say sucrose.”
However, especially when describing interlinking activity, the writing can be leaden, holding up the flow of the story. Given that Daniels can obviously write, these moments are odd and jarring. One feels as if he might have been done a disservice by his editor, who could have said to pare back the text even further, streamline it. Sentences such as,
“I snorted pills off the back of a toilet in that bar with a woman I didn’t understand was a prostitute; but later it became clear to me.”
are so clunky they diminish the remainder of the story.
The second problem is that Daniels still doesn’t appear to have found his big point. During all the stories he’s grasping for the defining sentiment, the key opinion that as a writer he wants to share. For me he doesn’t find it, and occasionally his attempts come across as trite or cliched.
“Small white butterflies fought, or teased one another, or courted: I didn’t have enough information to understand their relationship. All I was good for that year was watching waterbirds.”
You can sense the quest for a profound thought here, a lightening moment. But what is it in the end telling us? Where is the revelation?
But given this is a first book, then problems such as these are, in fact, positive. A prize cannot be found without a quest. These are Daniels’ first halting steps and they are promising.
J. D. Daniels is the recipient of a 2016 Whiting Award and The Paris Review’s 2013 Terry Southern Prize. His ‘Letter from Majorca’ was selected for The Best American Essays 2013.
The Correspondence was published by Jonathan Cape on 6th April 2017.
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Review by Joseph Surtees
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