The title is certainly a statement that rings true. However hard we try to order our lives and find meaning we’re all just stumbling around ardently making plans and searching for connections, but mostly bumping into things. The stories in Thomas Morris’ debut collection feature characters that are highly relatable. They are driven more by impulse than strategic plans which makes them often feel dislocated or caught in between stages of life in a way similar to Ann Beattie’s stories in her recent book “The State We’re In.” Morris’ characters feel they should be progressing onto something else, but they don’t know what that something else is. The protagonists of each story vary widely in gender, sexuality and socio-economic status featuring people ranging from a young woman devoid of nostalgia who returns home for Christmas to a twice-widowed elderly man trying to arrange a date for the Big Cheese festival. They all live a precarious existence in the Welsh town of Caerphilly. Some story collections have recurring characters, but other than thematic connections there is little that links these stories except for the town itself and a sweet pond (where some seagulls masquerade as ducks in order to be fed). Although Morris demonstrates a wide range of narrative techniques in these stories, what connects them is the strength of voice, humorous appreciation for the buffoonery of existence and a tender awareness of how we’re driven through life with a confused sense of desperation.
Given the relatively rural Welsh setting for these tales, it’s unsurprising that the stories primarily concern white characters for whom racial difference is something of a curiosity. A couple in one story find a connection over wishing they had a black friend. In another story a man’s sister suffering from a kind of mental break down makes friends with a Japanese woman who she practically smothers. The story ‘All the Boys’ features a group of men on a stag-do in Ireland who dress up as potatoes with the groom dragged up in Riverdance attire. Their crass exaggeration of national identity is so over the top it’s knowingly ridiculous, cringe-worthy and wholly believable – as are the persistent homophobic insinuations made about one of the friends who is overtly concerned about style and appearance when really it’s another more boisterously masculine man that is hiding his true sexuality. These representations of provincial characters show how they have a muddled attitude towards difference, but they still maintain an innate carefully-rendered humanity making them worthy of empathy rather than repulsion.
I always feel a deep sympathy with literature that deals with economic hardship so I appreciated how some of the stories dealt with characters who struggle with issues around employment. In particular, ‘Clap Hands’ features a single mother stuck in a system with frustratingly little chance of full time work and the story ‘How Sad, How Lovely” is narrated from the perspective of an unemployed man surviving on little food and fewer prospects. Morris gives a moving sense of the attendant feelings of low self esteem, defeatism and desperation that can come from being deprived of steady working lives. There is a sympathetic understanding that these are unique individuals who have been cornered out by circumstance and simply don’t fit into a system where they can thrive in the way that they should.
A fascinating habit for many characters in these stories is their persistent flair for masquerade. A woman wears a Natalie Portman mask when entering into an affair with her neighbour. A young woman believes her parents to be aliens under their skin. A passing couple are dressed as a knight and maiden. There are the aforementioned gulls pretending to be ducks. It’s as if these characters in their desperation at the perceived limitations of their own lives seek to escape into other beings. In one story a character remarks that “there are times when I can't bear to be in this skin of mine, times when I get so low that the smallest demands seem impossible.” In frustration, many characters seek to shed their skin whether it’s masking themselves as someone else or plunging into situations outside their own experience. This includes having affairs, engaging in public wrestling matches with women or running off on a drunken, drug-fuelled binge during the holidays. The characters are trying to wriggle out of their own skin and claim a new identity.
The concluding story ‘Nos da’ is one of the most daring and poignant in the entire collection. It’s the only piece to break from reality to construct a place where life persists in another form after your initial life. Yet there is nothing ethereal about this space. It’s more of a workaday reality, but there is a wider and more solemn gap between experience and memory. Characters can peer in on their past by ordering edited videos or spy on loved ones from a past life in real time via paid-for video links. But, rather than being caught in the technical aspects of constructing this alternate reality, Morris cleverly slides into a fantastical realm to write meaningfully about our persistent attachment to what might have been and neglect towards available possibilities in life.
The diversity and range of voices on show in “We Don't Know What We're Doing” demonstrate how Thomas Morris is a unique and sensitive writer with a keen sense of the absurd. This exciting, funny and oftentimes dark collection of stories was a pleasure to read.