A concise, intriguing work by Warren Ellis. It’s just as much a meditation on Los Angeles culture as it is a study in psychological, perhaps cultural detachment. Too short for a thorough plot overview, Ellis’s hits some really interesting observations here. About Los Angeles, his principal musing being a city without a center or identity; that in some ways it’s much like Beijing with its subtly encroaching desert and scrubland whenever you need it, especially when in possession of a few industrious seconds. His characterization and interplay is tense, centering around the focused Mister Sun, and atypical valley girl Amanda, bright but a bit too naively enthusiastic. Her shock of the events is muted by the allure to his stoic fastidiousness in such an unconventional situation. It is in this increasingly unquiet crisscross whereby Ellis invites subtle comparison and wonder of modern America with China, and their approach to common problems no one wants to acknowledge. Really though, it concentrates on the idea of the human need for self-direction, and the chilling deliberation of whether the heart is more than mere mechanism.
Amelia Gray‘s Museum of the Weird is concisely that. This little compendium of curios doesn’t mess around; nay, it’s a sucker-punch of surreal hurled straight to the breadbasket. While some of the stories in this collection are a slow time-release of quirk into the bloodstream, others are a full-on mainline of weird cooked freshly from Gray’s meth lab of imagination. But in a good way, I assure.
The great thing about this work is the quality, as a majority of the stories, each contained within just a few pages, can easily be novellas or even larger works in scope. And while the sentiment typically flows from the wellspring of psychological insecurity of her characters, Gray’s talent shines from the reserved awkwardness in their behavior. A waiter serves an entrée of hair but it’s a matter of for whom, not if it’s eaten; the work required to maintain a modern snake farm of the highest professionalism; the un-reciprocated dedication to a bag of frozen tilapia or a paring knife; or even the uneasy barroom conversation between a penguin and armadillo. Gray makes it work, no matter how strange the situation and delivers feeling, regardless of how absurd, creepily gothic or awkwardly sweet.
The downside to the work is that it’s too bloody short. There’s a great spectrum of stories to sample, but they’re over too quickly. Throw in a couple of Gray’s intriguing writing exercises to fatten it out a bit and the reader will soon enough finish the book, noting not only the thoroughness of her weirdview but perhaps a hunger for something more. Museum of the Weird is a freakishly well-written book, ideal for those geared for a reread in order to fully savor.
Channeling the gravitas of Borges and Calvino, Jeffrey Ford’s collection of short stories titled The Drowned Life, though at times overreaching in scope, sublimely conjures a sense of sheer wonder and befuddlement when confronted with the intersection of everyday life and the dreams that shape it, or are shaped by it.
Ford alternates his stories between the subtle and grandiose, the mundane and the outlandish, incorporating through each a pervasive sense of mystery and weirdness. When he is not detailing the wisdom of a soothsaying octopus, a town’s dependence upon an annual, magical breeze, and the peculiar behavior surrounding the annual “deathberry” drinkers, he describes the power contained within an overlooked scribble, an apartment’s potentially haunting flicker of light, losing a Chinese curse in a poker game, and the dictated writings of a comatose daughter through her mother.
This see-saw between the highly fantastical and the merely strange begs careful attention and even patience of the reader, noting the eternal truth that things are never what they seem. Several stories, especially that which introduces the fascinating Madame Mutandis, are deserving of their own novels. The Drowned Life is a deep and resonating read.
Also worth mentioning is an extended supplement in which Ford describes his biography and approach to writing, both of which explain much and lend credence to the saying that truth is stranger than fiction.
One might surmise that after reading Lewis Robinson’s collection of short stories entitled Officer Friendly and Other Stories, his setting would most invariably be located in the Pacific Northwest, perhaps in Alaska. Though no less intriguing than the storylines from the shows Twin Peaks or even Northern Exposure, the content of Robinson’s stories actually take place in the surprisingly curious state of Maine.
Robinson’s collection is an interesting insight just beyond the seemingly perpetual thaw of Maine, not only into local hunting or hockey cultures, but of the ever changing relationships formed in the snow, along the coast and within the forest. Often the stories deal with an emergence into adulthood, but more so the rites of passages faced by many in Maine, whatever their ages.
The stories themselves range from the creepy to the serenely cathartic, though like the weather, they’re always in a state of flux hovering just around the thaw. Take for example, the stories The Diver, The Toast, and Ride ; both are increasingly unsettling to say the least, as they introduce to the reader the unfamiliar eccentricities of being foreign to the Northeast. Puckheads, Seeing the World and Fighting at Night, on the other hand, deliver a sense of fulfillment no matter what was sacrificed from each character.
One captivating attribute of the book is that as a whole, time is not necessarily linear. The setting can resemble the era of F. Scott Fitzgerald or perhaps that of last March. Whether duck hunting with one’s father, evading a policeman in the snow, preparing to fight someone named Brick Chickisaw, or leaving home to fish for urchin on a whim, Robinson evokes a sense of wonder and exhilaration regardless of what era he writes.
In her collection of short stories titled Animal Crackers, Hannah Tinti deftly juxtaposes the innate qualities of the animal world with those of humanity. Like Arthur Bradford’s collection Dogwalker, Tinti presents a selection of dark and forlorn stories musing upon the question of what it means to be an animal, or rather if humans are actually civilized enough to be called animals.
Unlike most of the animals in her stories, there seems to be something just not right about the human species. She skilfully hints around the prevalence of sociopathic behavior in her human characters, suggesting it may be more innate, and thus common, whether exhibited in unattended little boys or refined hitmen, than we would like to admit. We’re more interested in self-absorption than the self-preservation exhibited by her non-human characters.
It’s a curious contrast. Her non-human characters, including easily bored pet snakes, wild red jungle chickens of Southeast Asia, mobilized and striking zoo giraffes, Slim the ragdoll white rabbit, and stuffed museum bears exhibit just as much, if not more, personality and civility we would normally expect from ourselves.
From what little I understand about his works, Rubem Fonseca is a big deal in the literary world, especially representative of the best South American writers around today. It shows, after reading his new collection of short stories, The Taker and Other Stories. My initial impression is that his writing style is a close amalgam of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Cormac McCarthy, though with a uniqueness that combines among his characters a flippant whimsy with an emptiness of deviousness, desperateness, opportunism and cruelty.
Make no mistake, Fonseca creates his stories around unique individuals and their circumstances, wealthy and impoverished; however, what distinguishes his stories and characters is that he is really writing about his native Brasil, about the desperate circumstances faced by its citizens, the corruption, their reaction to modernization, their daily sacrifices.
As if one really needed to be told, Brasil is passion. Life there is both carefree and cruel. Fonseca heaps a mixture of both in this collection of stories. He interweaves a world full of overworked and psychotic businessmen, the feasting upon rural roadkill, the camaraderie between mugger and victim, the nature of family among poor armed robbers, of murder amid good intentions, and the intense burn yet fleeting demise of love, often with fatal consequences.
Others have characterized Fonseca’s stories as unsettling, with which I agree completely. Add to that the words deeply, disturbing, engrossing, stifling, existential, and human. His stories force one to think not only about Brasilian life and culture, but the state of humanity as well. They may be short stories, but they’re so full of pathos.