[Reading Room] The Rules Are The Rules by Adam Foulds

I like complex stories. But I want them to be just as satisfying on a FIRST read as they are on a second or third.

I liked the fact that this story was about a man who happened to be a vicar and who happened to be gay, rather than being About A Gay Vicar. It makes me feel like we’ve evolved as a species, when stories about marginalized or minority characters can be about more than the thing that marginalizes or defines them.

At the start, the main character, Peter, is struggling at the start with many things: his job, the kids on the soccer team and their parents (he doesn’t really like them), his faith, his urge to be a father himself…

The turn takes a bit of a left-turn into his home and sex life. After I read the author’s comments on writing the story, I realized he’d written it for a themed issue of a publication, called Sex. I think this is why, to me, the story seemed forced. The character and his situation were both interesting but I felt like the author was trying to stuff too much theme into the story: there was the sex theme, a theme about fatherhood, the theme of faith…ok maybe they’re all interrelated.

My problem with the author’s emphasis on the themes was that they dictated where the story went, more than anything else: he notices a father and a baby at the start of the story; and then it comes back to a baby at the end, after veering away from anything baby-related in the middle. He And then there was my perennial problem with literary short stories: nothing really happens and then the story ends.

The writing was good and Peter, the main character, came alive. I cared about him. I wanted something to happen for him. The shape of the story didn’t delight me, though.

I suppose there’s a case to be made that the story ended when Peter made a decision about where to go in his life. But if he did, I can’t remember now what it was.

I like complex stories. But I want them to be just as satisfying on a FIRST read as they are on a second or third. It’s a quibble with the genre rather than with this story, but a quibble nonetheless.

For writers, the use of language in this story is a lesson in what you can do when you really have command of your words. But it’s also a cautionary tale about what happens when you worry too much about trying to explore a theme and miss the chance to sweep your readers up, and give them a satisfying story experience.

Read the story here.