‘101’ by May-Lan Tan

I remember this blowing my mind when it came out and I still go back to it today. Why did it blow my mind? Mainly for its brevity and sexiness. With a cover quote from Gordon Lish, it was in retrospect no surprise to find such clipped, perfectly crafted sentences. But the sexiness – my goodness!

I’ve given this to so many people as a gift and each time it feels somehow improper and yet each time they come back to me and say they loved it and my god wasn’t it sexy. They are all right.

The sunlight looked like powder as you shoved me back onto the hood of the car. My shirt was off, and the metal was so hot the paint felt sticky.

First published in The Reader, and collected in Things to Make or Break, CB Editions, 2014, and in a new edition, Sceptre, 2018

‘101’ by May-Lan Tan

The romance of the central relationship in this story is a welcome antidote to the one described in Cat Personand the story’s eroticism contrasts powerfully with the horrible dysfunction of that relationship. In May-Lan Tan’s story a bride and groom’s brother and sister are thrown together during family wedding celebrations. The bride’s sister narrates the story, addressing the groom’s brother, recalling his “silken hair wound into a ballerina knot” and re-living the wedding (“our eyes locked as the minister described them man and wife. When they kissed, we turned away”) as well as subsequent encounters. Any potential awkwardness after they have sex (“you kissed me with the apple green taste of the pool on your tongue”) is dispelled by her saying to him “I hope it’s not going to be like this” and him assuring her “it’s not”. Of course, this being a short story, the relationship is delicately doomed and its ending slays me every time I read it.

First published in Things to Make and Break, CB Editions 2014. New edition from Sceptre, 2018

‘Candy Glass’ by May-Lan Tan

This is a story about doubles and the often unstable barriers between them. An actress has an affair with her stunt double, its highs and lows detailed via a collage of shooting script excerpts, which dissolve into prose and then clarify once again into script. May-Lan Tan is a master at messing with form and her strangely precise, deeply filmic and often uncomfortable phrasing falls neatly between the chairs of script and story. I love the way she allows the central conceit of doubles to mean everything and pretty much nothing simultaneously, playing up to the idea that we are all far less finitely separated from each other than we might like to think. Throughout ‘Candy Glass’, Tan presents desire as a dangerous, liminal zone, a bleeding place, too easily shattered.

Collected in Things To Make And Break, CB Editions, 2014. New edition from Sceptre, 2018

‘Candy Glass’ by May-Lan Tan

‘Candy Glass’ stands out amongst the dazzling stories in May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break for two reasons. One is formal: unlike the other stories in the collection, which look fairly standard, ‘Candy Glass’ is presented as a script (it’s fitting—the story follows the relationship between an aging actress and a younger stunt double).

The other is stylistic. Tan handles long stretches of time superbly. Her dialogue is at its sharpest and most knife-edge in this piece. And I suspect that, if you were to re-edit this as a conventional story, the language would still stand out as almost filmic, it is so beautifully, immersively visual

In Things to Make and Break, CB Editions, 2014. Now also published by Sceptre

‘Would Like To Meet’ by May-Lan Tan

This story ends unforgettably with a ring tone of Lou Reed singing ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ closing the book on a literal note of melancholy optimism. It’s one of the quieter, gentler stories in a brashly and unabashedly brilliant and original collection, charged with so much honesty and feeling that it lingers for years.

First published in Things to Make and Break, CB Editions, 2014. New edition from Sceptre, 2018

‘Julia K’ by May-Lan Tan

The dark sexy glitter of May-Lan Tan’s writing blew me away when I first read this debut collection. Like Angela Carter, she’s excellent on atmospheric surface detail and, by that, I don’t mean she’s shallow; surface detail is what grounds a story. It was hard to choose my favourite from this collection as they work as a whole, but ‘Julia K’, about a mysterious alluring woman who lives upstairs from the narrator, is full of Tan’s characteristic hard-edged, occasionally hallucinatory imagery: “Kissing Julia was like kissing language. Her tongue was a flame, licking phoneme and diphthong. She swallowed me like a sword and her eyes were doves, her mouth a lake of fire.”

(from Things To Make and Break, CB Editions, 2014)

‘101’ by May-Lan Tan

I probably could have chosen any of the stories from this extraordinary collection. (For instance, I could happily have chosen ‘Julia K.’ simply on the basis of that one line — you know the one: ‘Language, as she deployed it, was neither a line cast nor a bullet fired. It was a catholic mechanism: the sharp twist of a pilot biscuit into the waifish body of Christ’). As it is, I choose this. I choose it because of the near total brilliance of its execution. The way, the more you read it, the more everything seems to slot into place, not neatly and tidily, but raggedly and bloodily; from the palindromic title — those two ones with nothing in between — to the playful, cutesy doubling, too self-consciously cool to be taken seriously, until it slowly resolves into something that cannot, by any measure, be taken lightly. Oh, and did I mention the language? Hell on earth, the language.

In Things to Make and Break (CB Editions, 2014)

‘DD/MM/YY’ by May-Lan Tan

From the patently mind-blowing, world-consuming collection Things to Make and Break, ‘DD/MM/YY’ is a story of doubles and disguises. There are twins, replays and could-have-beens, like a hot, high and heavy kind of Plato’s cave. Amid the sex and the drugs, there’s humour and a lot of real human feeling. The writing is luminous and the simplest turn can break your heart: ‘When I was little, I could always feel the promise of it, like a tooth. A germ that would develop into something no-one in the world has ever seen before. It’s not there anymore.’

First published in Things to Make and Break, London: CB Editions, 2014