Flare and Falter by Michael Conley

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Flare and Falter is a humorous and light-hearted short story collection, occasionally bordering on the absurd. Conley gives us a delightful glimpse into the inner workings of his creative talents, creating bizarre worlds, plot lines that move in every which way, and relatable characters, in these short pieces that leave us questioning our own society. The creations often come with a deeper comment, slight musings on our sense of humanity, but portrayed in a wholly accessible and enjoyable manner, even when the stories do veer off towards the insane.

It’s clear that Conley has a knack for pulling together the weird and crazy thoughts that enter his mind, the results being the pieces that make-up Flare and Falter. The exploration into humanity and our interactions with one-another is done in such a unique manner, so we get these funny yet sinister narratives which cause us to stop and think about the connections we keep with each other. Despite the often heavy undertones, the pieces are light-hearted, rooted in popular culture with references to footballers, television shows, and fashion trends. These small yet effective additions give these pieces that further realness which – even though the stories are clearly set in a world that is not our own – immerses the reader and makes the reader feel as though this dystopian environment is entirely realistic.

Technology and how it interacts with humanity is a theme in many of the stories in Flare and Falter, a topic that is often the focus for a society in turmoil. However, Conley stays on a unique path when it comes to just how he incorporates this theme. It’s a subtle addition, and while there are robots and unexplained occurrences, they have a purposeful place in the stories, aiding Conley’s overriding message about human interactions and our collective progress as a society.

Some pieces offer us a fully-imagined, almost murder-mystery narratives, while others are simply short glimpses into the minds of a strong character. The collection as a whole is strong and well-considered – there doesn’t seem to be a ‘box’ that any of the stories fit into, and no plots are repeated (apart from one circumstance, but this is intentional and cleverly done).

Personally, I enjoyed the longer pieces more, as they give the reader more time with this wonderful weirdness. I found myself getting sucked into the stories, the characters, only for it to come to a quick end; however, this isn’t a bad thing. A good writer leaves their readers wanting more, yearning to find out what happens next…or doesn’t. Conley’s method of suspense in these cases is great, and I’d love to read a longer piece of work by him.

Despite often being set in an unfamiliar environment, the world-building doesn’t take up any valuable space in the short stories. Instead, we are made to feel as though we already understand the kind of space we are dropped in, through subtle characterisation techniques or bizarrely funny plot occurrences. Altogether, the longer pieces therefore make for enjoyable reads, worthy of their space.

That is not to say that the shorter pieces are less effective. Indeed, Conley’s tactics of suspense and weirdness are showcased best in the odd stories where just a single scene is portrayed. An orgy, a person happily plummeting to their death, and dissatisfaction with bee-keepers, are just some of the fleeting literary creations that Conley gives us, leaving us to ponder the outcome for ourselves. Even in these paragraphs, the character voices are strong, and the settings fully imagined. They keep the collection moving, helping to guide the pace from light-hearted, to a somewhat more serious tone, turning to Conley’s darker humorous techniques. Each has earned its place in this collection, and no piece feels over, or under, done.

I enjoyed every single one of Conley’s world creations, however there were some standout stories. ‘Marked’ was contains some absolutely brilliant one-liners (the Comic Sans comment in particularly left me smiling) amidst a more sombre subject matter. The final parting thought that these newly ‘inked’ characters would be more effective if read together, left a lasting impression of the deep-rooted community message, highlighting just how powerful humanity could be.

‘The Armor of a Vehicle’ is a small yet incredibly interesting piece, which delves into impulses and what causes us to want or act on them. Can desires simply just be desires? Does there need to be another explanation behind them?

‘Pinniped’ is a bizarre yet beautiful story, my favourite of the entire collection, and could easily stand on its own. I loved the exploration into escapism from the everyday, playing out those inner musings and even wishes that we’ve no doubt all had. The act of taking on another life was portrayed in a unique and memorable manner, combining comedy with something darker such as obsession and anger. The characters were wonderfully formed, and I found myself rooting for Kerry, yet feeling sad for her partner. Her transformation and the world’s fascination with her was a subtle nod to the modern day media frenzy, and our pre-occupation with leaving it all behind.

However, possibly the most satirical and strongest reference to popular culture is ‘Rory’s Difficult Year’, which mimics popular ‘makeover rescue’ shows, that often ignore the deep-rooted issues that their contestants are dealing/have dealt with. Conley imagines a world where a one-such Garden Rescue programme is actually offering some kind of psychological relief within its services. The final image of the whimpering ‘terrorist’ among the pristine garden and happy family is one of the darkest in the collection, and makes a lasting and conflicting impression on the reader.

Flare and Falter is an accomplished collection, containing stories which are uniquely crafted to showcase humanities’ darkest aspects in clever, witty ways. Interactions are explored in every sense, delving into an alternative way of considering – especially shorter – how stories can convey such themes. A brilliant collection, and another fantastic triumph for Splice.

Flare and Falter is published by Splice and is available here.

Michael Conley

Michael Conley is a writer from Manchester. His poetry has appeared in various literary magazines, and has been Highly Commended in the Forward Prize. He has published two pamphlets: Aquarium, with Flarestack Poets, and More Weight, with Eyewear. His prose work has taken third place in the Bridport Prize and was shortlisted for the Manchester Fiction Prize. He tweets @mickconley.

Reviewed by Mariah Feria

The Annihilation Radiation Short Story Competition is now open for entries.

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