How autobiographical is Anneliese Mackintosh‘s debut? Reading it, I kept hoping: not very. Her protagonist Gretchen was gang raped at eighteen. Her father died young and her mother attends orgies in Soho dungeons. She failed a PhD, almost died of a renal abscess, became an alcoholic, was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and had a string of relationships with predatory and inept males. You keep thinking: it has to be fiction. No one can be that screwed up!
But I’m making the book sound like a misery memoir, which Any Other Mouth certainly is not. Studying in America and getting so drunk she falls asleep on the steps of Capitol Hill, playing lovers off against each other in a vegan commune in Lenton, travel, sexcapade and laughter – Gretchen’s is despite everything a life well lived. It’s a collection of interconnected short stories, of formative moments that make us into the person we become – interwoven, yet standing alone, everyday and universal, and yet unique. The style is contemporary, and discursive. Look at the chapter titles. ‘Google Maps Saved My Life’. ‘Imagine If You Could Run As Fast As This’. ‘Your Alter Ego Does Not Exist’. The pain is worn lightly, even played for laughs, as in the twelve-step plan ‘How To Become An Alcoholic Writer’: ‘Keep writing those haiku, and after each 5/7/5, don’t forget to take a big old swig. The sort of swig that makes your stomach lining burn, and that screaming in your skull into more of a grim whisper.’
It’s also worth watching Mackintosh’s interview with the writer Socrates Adams:
AM: No one would publish my novel about a girl who gets in a lift at Tesco’s and ends up in the prehistoric era… No one would publish my novel about a character who wears glasses and takes the glasses on and off at significant points in the novel.
SA: Was that the main plot development?
AM: It was called ‘Glasses’.
In Manchester writers there is a healthy sense of the ridiculous allied to an easy replication of the human music people make when they talk. (I should say that I met Anneliese on one or two occasions, she came to the city as I was leaving.) It’s well placed in the here and now, But there is also an exactitude and an economy to these stories that resonates. This is from ‘Imagine If You Could Run As Fast As This’:
On the way to work, I sometimes think: what if this is it? What if this is the world? Just this strip of space I can see on the way from home into work, and from work back home – what if this is everything? These are the only streets, the only cafes, the only job centres, the only canalside gastropubs, the only churches. And these are the only people.
Most of the time, I find this thought reassuring.
Notice the style: not one unnecessary or extraneous word. The candid existentialism informs all of these stories. The economy is maintained throughout the collection no matter how bizarre the content. It’s personal, but never self-centred. The chapter ‘Someone Else’s Story’ is told as her parents as young lovers; the final chapter imagines Gretchen becoming old and having children of her own and waiting at the door on weekend nights, a great final story, elegiac and moving. Any Other Mouth is not flawless. There’s an occasional lapse into cliché (does anyone still wear shellsuits, or use zimmer frames?) and a certain tweeness that for some reason most Manchester writers have. But this is a superb piece of work from a genius of the personal who nevertheless understands that personal is not the same as important.