THE MOST vexing question in collecting an author's entire output is whether the earlier, unformed writings can - in themselves and out of context- sustain the reader's interest. Unfortunately, the stories in Hugh Hood's The Isolation Booth - the third instalment in his collected stories, and all written between March 1957 and October 1966 - are, on the whole, not arresting enough to warrant more than a cursory reading. Hood himself admits as much in his introduction when he suspects them of inconsequentiality and pointlessness, although he softens this by implying that they are superior in other respects.
This is not to say that the collection is completely without its rewards. Perhaps the most effective story is the most anomalous: "Suites and Single Rooms, with Bath," its candour and studied nonchalance hinting at a deep-seated, repressed fear of solitude, is stylistically indebted to the slangily confessional school of writing familiar to fans of Celine and Miller (not surprisingly, the story was originally written for radio broadcast). Hood, abandoning the habitual tightly wound fussiness of his prose, explores, however briefly, some genuine, visceral human emotion in this evocation of a man paralysed by his freedom. Also effective is "The Ingenue 1 Should Have Kissed, But Didn't," which concerns a young man's misguided thespian aspirations. It could easily have degenerated into a compendium of stock characters and situations, but Hood keeps the tone light and airy without being arch, an effect he achieves by anchoring the whole scenario in the bedrock of the protagonist's blithe, solid ineptitude.
Other pieces don't fare so well. The title story, in trying to forge a direct conceptual link between a television gameshow device and the mentality underlying concentration camps and torture, muddies a valid and disturbing notion by the introduction of an inane narrator, a cynical host whose floundering attempts at self-preservation mask an infinitely more sinister guilt and culpability. 'A Season of Cold Weather" is an arduous affair, its laboured convolutions and intellectual posturings ultimately draining. And "I'm Not Desperate," in its attempt at lampooning the self involved pomposities of university students, comes across as nothing more than trite.
The litmus test of any such collection is the ability of the constituent parts to stand on their own, autonomous and independent. Sadly, the stories here, wrenched from their respective historical contexts, lack - with one or two exceptions - the compact core and distillation of experience that mark the best examples of the genre. The failings at the heart of The Isolation Booth are the degree to which it curries the reader's indulgence, and the extent to which it tests the reader's tolerance for tracing the evolution of an individual writer's voice. Because of this The Isolation Booth will, in all probability, appeal only to die-hard Hood aficionados.