Waiting For The Gift: Stories Inspired By Low
Various authors, edited by Richard V. Hirst (Configo Publishing, 2022) out now
An excellent new collection of short fiction that goes beyond the seminal album to expand the David Bowie universe.
After Ziggy Stardust, Low has become the go-to favorite Bowie record, praised by musicians from the new romantic era of the 1980s through to rapper Danny Brown, it is equally beloved by artists and writers of all stripes. The stellar cast of assembled writers in Configo publishing’s new collection which borrows its title Waiting For The Gift, from the lyrics of Bowie’s oddball hit on negative capability and alienation, Sound And Vision, reflect the broad artistic fanbase Bowie still brings together years after his death in 2016.
The stories are refreshingly unique, managing to stand alone but also work within the whole of the book, itself a concept album of static interference with voices bouncing off the walls Each story strikes a tangent from the tight and compressed narratives of Low’s original tracks, reaching escape velocity into strange new places. Low is perhaps the most challenging and confrontational David Bowie album, certainly when it was released in early 1977. Bowie’s label RCA were frightened at its commercial potential, when what they really wanted was another Young Americans, and tried to prevent its release. While for the listener Bowie, once again, blew our collective minds and managed to alienate a small portion of his fanbase and critics who just didn’t get it. A record split down the middle, initially titled Songs For Night And Day, Bowie presented us with Side A of jarring angst-ridden expressions of doubt and self-loathing, bookended by a couple of bright and pacey instrumentals, with Side B going darker and deeper into the imagined in-between spaces of ruined cities like Warszawa and Berlin, where like Bowie people were torn between reconstruction of the past and vigilance for the hyper-modern world accelerated progress.
When asked about the alienated sense of Low in a long and revealing interview with Dutch television from October 1977 Bowie responded to his interrogator with another question: “alienated from what?”, “from society” Bowie nods but explains that as much as he later made a new start in Berlin, much of Low was recorded in rural France, while he was still trying to find a place to be in the world. The stories of Waiting For The Gift exist in that same liminal territory, occupied by people who have either chosen or been forced to retreat from the everyday world; seeking new forms of escape often into fresh unknowns which forces them to further confront the past.
Many of the authors play on a dynamic relationship between countries, planet earth and ‘space’ in its various meanings: people separated by emigration and exile, ghostly subterranean lives, lived out in public, but misunderstood, their struggles unheeded in a breakdown of communication . What In The World by Dima Alzayat seems to talk about a broken family situation, divided by immigration and the challenge to maintain family ties across the generations feeling the strain of an older woman’s paranoia that she is being watched, hunted even, by secret police, powerless to change things she stays at home, withdrawn from the events happening around her.
There are pleasing nods to a more modern version of what might be called science-fiction worlds, less fantastical, more people in altered places, where seemingly exotic journeys become travels in the mind, thrust into difficult situations of new meetings and goodbyes sharing the dynamic pushing and pulling apart of Bowie’s Low songs. Many of the stories seem driven by the same sense of yearning that fires much of Bowie’s own version of the torch love song, with characters full of wanting, though they don’t seem to know what that strange, wonderful something is, until, and if, they get it.
The struggles of (de)transition are played out in Ruby Cowling’s Speed Of Life moving through the axis of separation and the need to return to the grounding force of a familiar love. At the other end of the spectrum, Breaking Glass by David Hayden is suitably fragmented, given to the form of concrete poetry as the reader tries to return to the whole front the aftermath of its breakdown, getting lost in the ruins.
Throughout the book I felt the prevailing sense of discord and loneliness that is locked into the grooves of Low. The undercurrent of the songs that were partial cries for help and connection is made physical in these stories; like Bowie, they offer a place in which the range of characters might feel less alone and apart from society, although they might be outcasts, freaks and dreamers, they share these situations together.
Refreshingly the stories don’t demand, or even expect, a knowledge of the album. Although I dare say they work well in soundtracking one another, neither one strictly beer or chaser. They often seem to begin in parentheses; at mid-thought, jumping in to take us straight into the headspace of the characters, often pushing or pulling against some invisible forces: deadlines of space and time, finding a route across a city to meet an inner obligation or trying to cure a sense of vacancy, looking for the next thing that might make them whole again. The book has a prismatic quality with stories explaining themselves to one another in a submerged dialogue; this is a great credit to the work of the book’s editor Richard V Hirst who has made the stories hang together so well.
In Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s reflection of Sound And Vision you feel the glow of Bowie’s electric blue lyric from the song. It casts a melancholy but playful eye over the taxi driver, Margot, traveling about a city of ghosts. Within herself she is never entirely alone, the blue illuminates a sense of escapism in solitude and withdrawing into self-reliance, confronted by the call and needs of others she keeps on moving, her life held within theirs – or is it the other way around ? Like Bowie we appreciate the mood of color in the tone of character; where he was stuck seeking inspiration of the fantastical, Hisayo Buchanan’s protagonist is haunted and overwhelmed by it.
I really enjoyed Adam Marke’s unnerving A New Career In A New Town, with its creeping sense of doubt between two characters sharing a journey together uncertain if either one can believe what the other is saying; stuck traveling in the same trajectory, all their uncertainties are laid bare. Elsewhere other stories offer a glimpse through a framing device, Jen Calleja’s Warszawa tells of a translator abroad looking for the key to a novel in an unknown city and Wendy Erskine’s Be My Wife forces us to look through an old photograph sharing glimpses of the life beyond an image of loss and remembrance at a heroic, Bowie-like figure half-glimpsed as a fleeting portrait.
Like many good books relating to David Bowie the stories connect the dots between different looks and albums from the stages of Bowie’s life, in this sense the collection hangs together really well, dealing with Bowie at large, rather than each story re-telling a track from the album, they work more like jumping-off points. The book is aided by a broad line-up of authors well known across contemporary fiction writing, such as Preti Taneja and Wendy Erskine, and Hugo Wilcken, as well as being a novelist, the author of a critical music book on the making of Low from the 33&⅓ series, the collection has also introduced me to lots of other writers new to me. Waiting For The Gift is well worth a read for short fiction readers and Bowie fans alike, and hopefully will encourage the one to become the other and get lost in this great collection of new writing.
Waiting For The Gift is available now from Configo Publishing
Featuring original work from: Dima Alzayat, Anne Billson, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Jen Calleja, Ruby Cowling, Wendy Erskine, Keeley Forsyth, David Hayden, Zoë McLean, Adam Marek, Preti Taneja, Melissa Wan and Hugo Wilcken.
Words by Adam Steiner, who is a lifeguard, journalist and author. When not saving lives he sits dreaming about all the books he will never write. His next book is Silhouettes And Shadows: The Secret History of David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) – coming in 2023. In 2020 his book Into The Never, a deep dive into the Nine Inch Nails The Downward Spiral album, was published by Rowman and Littlefield, his first novel, Politics Of The Asylum about a cleaner in a collapsing hospital was published in 2018.
This is Adams first review for Louder Than War. You can find more about Adam at his website. and he tweets here: