By Tim Jones
Random House, $27.95 | Reviewed by Jennifer van Beynen

SHORT STORIES are tough. Tough to write and, at times, tough to read. And in a collection of short stories, how should they fall together into one book? Should there be links, an overriding theme? The short story can be seen as a small universe unto itself – a good short story should bring the reader straight into this universe and keep them there, absorbed, until the end. It seems that a collection of these universes should then make a whole. In Transported, Tim Jones tackles climate change, fantasy, science fiction (I assume if one story has orcs and another aliens, both bases are covered), some small pieces involving Borges, Gorbachev, and of course human relationships. This means a lot of angles in one short story collection, and at times the material doesn’t sit together all that well.

I found Transported at times to be baffling and frustrating. This may be because of the heavy science fiction content (I’m not a fan), but that’s just my personal preference. At times the stories seemed a bit pointless – in particular ‘After the War’, in which an orc (a Lord of the Rings reference, perhaps?) trudges through a barren landscape after a war. In other stories, the narrative is going along perfectly well, then a planet or alien race is mentioned casually. The reader is left thinking ‘Why?’

Often there is scant detail or emotional reaction in these stories; things happen and the story carries on, with little emotional payoff. I found the fantasy stories particularly alienating. In ‘Cold Storage’, for example, the main character has little response to life-threatening and bizarre events other than an annoying arrogance, even when faced with certain death in Antarctica.

The stories I enjoyed most in this collection were the ones about ordinary humans. Particularly affecting was ‘Alarm’, where a young man wanders through Wellington after a relationship break-up. Jones delivers this story with just the right amount of restraint and melancholy, doing a great job with the character’s pragmatic references to cricket as he walks through the Basin Reserve. ‘Jim Clarke’ is a sweet and ultimately sad tale about a young boy’s trip to the car races with his Dad. I found the last story of the collection, ‘Books in the trees’, to be a charming and swift conclusion to the book. It is a mere couple of paragraphs of analogising books and birds, but it’s lovely.

Global warming is brought up several times in this collection; sometimes it is effective, sometimes not. In ‘The Wadestown Shore’, Jones is particularly successful in drawing attention to the potential catastrophe of increasing sea levels due to global warming, as a young character makes his way out past ‘Miramar Island’ to forage from the submerged office buildings of the former Wellington CBD. It is when Jones winds the theme of climate change in firmly and intimately with the stories that they work the best.

Some of the stories didn’t catch my attention as a reader at all. Often Jones creates bizarre situations, almost audacious. In one, a company boss orders his workers to make their way across miles of terrain to keep their jobs, then helicopters away. Several die on the way back. But there is no payoff or satisfaction at the end, just quirkiness. Some of the ideas in this book are fantastic – a man who has an eye transplant so he can stargaze properly, or a playful anecdote about Foucault visiting his brother ‘Wayne’, but they never reach a proper execution.

Tim Jones’ latest book does indeed ‘transport’ the reader – but perhaps too far and too widely to be a satisfying universe unto itself.