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20 November 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 7:19am

Julia Armfield’s Salt Slow is a dark take on life’s most threatening anxieties

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Fantasies have always provided escapism. They expose the darker parts of life that we’d rather not confront through plain realism, instead using magic and the unexplainable as metaphors for life’s cruelties.

The short story, a crafty, nimble shape that runs without explanation, eagerly welcomes the weird and wonderful. Julia Armfield’s new collection salt slow is innovative and often vengeful, reaching forward into a landscape that is futuristic yet almost close enough to touch. In “The Great Awake”, the winner of the White Review Short Story Prize 2018, Armfield exposes the reality of a very modern anxiety: sleeplessness.

A city’s inhabitants begin to lose their “Sleep”: shadow-like forms escape from characters, freeing them to remain awake without needing to rest. Their newly released “uninvited guests” sleep on behalf of the characters but are annoying and distracting, always following a few steps behind their bodies. Characters who no longer need to sleep initially discover new freedoms, while those who experience no change in their sleeping patterns grow ever more envious, anchored to the usual cycle of day and night.

The NHS suggests that most adults require eight hours of sleep each night to function and reports that a continuous lack of sleep not only makes you irritable and unable to focus, but has long-term medical side-effects including obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. At the same time, many of us feel under pressure to work outside office hours, have active social lives and still make time for rest. To excel in work and play, it seems, something has to give – there aren’t enough hours in the day to manage it all. Aside from its fantastical imagining of a world gone mad, Armfield’s story tackles the modern notion of what it means to be healthy.

“My brother rang, on his way to an audition which had been rescheduled for two in the morning – an early example of what would become the fairly common practice of ‘repurposing the night’,” explains the story’s narrator. What would it mean to find yourself with eight extra hours to fill, every day? And – more alarmingly – what would it mean for some of us to have this power, while others still found themselves yawning come midnight? As the city’s inhabitants stay up around the clock, the idea of time itself, and what hours are set aside for socialising, begin to change.

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The narrator’s neighbour, Leonie, hasn’t yet had her Sleep leave her, and is feeling the side-effects. “She went to sleep every night and felt like she was missing out on something, this all-night party she was too exhausted to attend.” Armfield identifies the anxiety of missing out: the fear that there is always something more worthwhile one could be doing. Leonie, who writes an agony column for a newspaper, is reading aloud some of the hysterical letters she’s received. One man complains his marriage has become unequal: “She doesn’t say she has a Sleep because she works harder and needs the extra hours awake, but I feel the judgement is implicit.”

“It’s hard to escape that wild sense of work trumping everything under late capitalism and it’s bound up in the fallacy that everything is achievable if you just work for it,” Julia Armfield explains to me.

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“The characters are wide awake but most of the time they’re not actually doing anything useful, just sleepwalking through the reality they’ve found themselves in, which I guess isn’t a thousand miles away from how I feel about the time we’re living in now.”

It’s a very metropolitan problem. In “The Great Awake”, the narrator’s mother, who lives outside the city, doesn’t have a Sleep – “very few people outside the city limits did” – and warns her daughter of the dangers of moving into the metropolis, insisting that “cities could not be lived in but only haunted.”

“I’ve always lived in London as an adult and I find it an intensely alienating place at times, but for all that I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” says Armfield. “You can be piled on top of people in an overcrowded building or train carriage and still feel entirely alone.”

Other anxieties take the form of what ifs: what if technology develops so quickly we all lose our jobs before we find a way of stopping it? What if it affects love, one of the few things we see as sacrosanct, an emotion whose authenticity can’t be digitised? In “The Great Awake”, Leonie reads aloud a newspaper interview with a woman who describes the experience of falling in love with her Sleep, however much everyone doubts her. “There are gestures – he moves to the corner of the mattress to give me more space, he alphabetises my books.” It’s reminiscent of Her, Spike Jonze’s 2013 science-fiction romance in which Joaquin Phoenix’s character falls in love with his artificially intelligent personal assistant that is personified by an alluring female voice, a disconcerting projection of the not-so-distant future.

While they sometimes draw upon legends and folklore, Armfield’s stories are not just fragments of her imagination – they are born of a far-reaching scrutiny of modern life. What is keeping my friends up at night? What is the first thought they have when they awake? What do young people most fear? What do old people most fear? And then – how can I manifest these fears into stories, riddled with all the anxieties of a 21st-century metropolis, and make them get underneath my readers’ skin?

Two other stories in salt slow, “The Collectables” and “Stop your women’s ears with wax” see gangs of young women on crusades of power and dark intent, collecting the fingernails – and then fingers – of men, locking the manager of a concert venue in his own office with a band t-shirt crammed down his throat. “I read somewhere that ‘witchcraft is the recourse of the dispossessed’,” explains Armfield, “and I suppose I like that idea of creating power out of a lack thereof.” These delightfully cruel tales seem like a misogynist’s fears of man-hating (supposedly “in the name of feminism”) that have come alive.

In “Mantis”, the school-girl narrator exists in a world obsessed with looks and which boys those looks can attract. Little by little, the girls become “frenetic with hunger, with wanting… We laugh like hyenas, our heads thrusting forward from our bodies.” By the end of the story, our narrator, who we’ve seen grow troubled by the mysteries of her “problem skin” and the sudden loss of teeth, takes a Kafkaesque turn, metamorphosing into a winged creature and leaving the boy who had siphoned her off, away from the heart of the party and into a side-room, screaming with fear. Armfield collects anxieties about puberty, vanity, reputation, bodily autonomy and sexual consent into one gloriously tight vignette, asking us to confront them all together.

“I think it’s almost impossible to live as a woman right now and not feel bound by your body – the way others react to it, the way you relate to it, the ways in which you are supposed to feel empowered and ashamed and accepting and positive and aspirational all at once,” Armfield says. Such anxieties “flock around the ways our bodies can contain and betray us”, she adds.

salt slow takes hold of the jittering uncertainty of modern life and picks apart its meaning. However uncomfortable our world becomes, it seems to say, there is comfort in envisaging one ever more terrifying.