Monthly Archives: March 2005

Patrick Somerville, "Trouble and the Shadowy Deathblow"

An out of work food scientist learns how to kill with his touch, but he can’t unlearn it.

(from One Story, Vol. 2, Number 10, October, 2003)

This story is pretty effin funny. The real-life absurdity of the existence of spray-on cheese experts is juxtaposed by the other-world absurdity of some regular snobby guy turning into a killing machine overnight. Somerville’s got a knack for including some details (what everybody’s wearing, because the narrator judges people that way) while leaving out others (damn, I wanna know how to do the Shadowy Deathblow! I been poking my co-workers all day). Overarching themes be damned, this story is a wily lil thrillride, a nearly believable tale with no moral. So much fun.
Coulda used an editor though, if you ask me, just to tighten it up a little bit. For instance, it’s hard to imagine a vaccum cleaner which could be pushed into somebody’s shins. That’s just too high. Feet, or ankles, I would say. Also, it’s “Rollie Fingers,” not “Rolly.” Little things. Not important. Sorry I brought it up. Geez.

This story was recommended by reader Ginny Brewer whom I do not know. She actually emailed me a PDF of the story. It was super super nice.
Thus begins Recommendation Week.

George Saunders,"Pastoralia"

Two cavepeople impersonators deal with cutbacks at the theme park.

(from The O. Henry Awards, 2001 Prize Stories)

This story rocked. It’s 45 pages long, and after five I was already plotting who to lend it to first. The tone was perfect; the absurdity of the situation was tempered by the sadness of it and the author was careful to establish the characters in stages and moments. A beautiful story that made me smile the whole time. Ah.
I think I should read more George Saunders. This is the second story of his I’ve read and enjoyed — the first was “Sea Oak” on August 17, 2004 — and I’d like to take a swipe at why. In his reality, at least in these tiny deputies of his mostly unexplored ouevre, everybody gets the blame for the fucked-uppedness of the world. It’s society! But also, it’s the individual! And then there are people who play by the rules, as well as they can, and it doesn’t help because most everybody else is contributing to the fucked-uppedness. Not that it matters because not all problems are caused by, or can be remedied by, people. There is nothing you can do. Enjoy your day.

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Starting tomorrow: Request week! It’s what it sounds like! Now, for real, enjoy your day.

Shalom Auslander, “Bobo The Self-Hating Chimp”

Bobo struggles to come to terms with his newfound intellect and self-awareness.

(from Beware of God)

Easy reader. The author’s deadpan style seems to be going for poignancy, but the narrator comes off more like a stand-up comedian fishing for laughing caesuras to break up his storytelling. So many one-sentence paragraphs and repeated lines. Some moments are genuinely memorable. It’s funny and thoughtful, but not too deep. A reading might very well be Auslander’s wheelhouse. Which is not a bad thing. We’ll see, when he and Eric Bogosian read at the Library on May 5. (Since I will try to whip up a short article on this reading for the paper, you may see some more Shalom Auslander here on I Read A Short Story Today.)
For a more contemplative, but half-as-funny take on unhappy zoo animals, please see Hannah Tinti’s “Reasonable Terms” which I read on March 15.

“The War of The Bernsteins”
Much to the chagrin on his wife, a man starts looking at everything in terms of how it will or will not affect his chances at post-death bliss.
Also defined by one-sentence paragraphs and repeated lines, but this one’s less jokey. Plus all the mean-spirited parts are sharp. The Lockhorns embroiled in a battle to the after-death!

“Somebody Up There Likes You”
A man who escapes death in a car accident ponders returning to his faith. Meanwhile, God, Lucifer and co. set about finishing the job. More repeated lines. Funny stuff, though. If Bloom was a little more fleshed out, I’d buy into his spiritual exploring more.

David J. Snyder, "Dane’s Geld: A Fairy Tale"

A man faces his sworn enemy in a world where fairy tales are real.

(from Philadelphia City Paper, March 17, 2005)

First, read the story here. (The link will expire one day.)
I enjoyed the many surprises in the fast-paced, funny “Dane’s Geld,” as the author gradually revealed that this wasn’t the real world we were looking at. A quick and satisfying read.
This story was one of the winners of City Paper‘s fiction contest, sci-fi/fantasy division, as chosen by judge Michael Swanwick. As per the rules of the contest, Philadelphia and CP get prominent shout-outs. The other winners, in the categories of Romance and Mystery, can be found here and here.

Peter Straub, "Mr. Aickman’s Air Rifle"

Four men suffering from heart disease, and all loosely connected in the publishing world, end up on the same floor of a hospital.

(from McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories)

No surprise, Peter Straub has teamed up with Stephen King in the past. I’ve only read the one story by King, but I know his style a little bit from the jalopies adapted from his books and stories. “Mr. Aickman’s Air Rifle” has a lonely Langoliers quality to it, right down to its viciously unexplained bits of spookiness. I really don’t get what’s going on in this story. Or maybe I get the big picture but the details are so hazy I feel lost.

* * *

And that, dear readers, was my last trip to the good ol’ Enchanted Chamber. I’ve read all 15 stories in the collection, which isn’t terribly impressive. You’re supposed to read books. Still, given that this is the first finished book in the short history of I Read A Short Story Today, it should be recognized as the nigh-milestone it is. Applause Sign.
McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories was absolutely worth the $13.95 (plus tax) cover price. Its over-arching accomplishment was tricking artsy-litsy types into reading “genre” fiction. The stories sometimes utilized, or parodied, familiar elements from mysteries, horror and, yeah, mostly those two genres. Most were engaging reads. Well chosen, editor Michael Chabon.
I once got an award, well more of a certificate, for studying banjo for a week. Okay, everybody in class got one. Just for showing up. It’s an honor I’d like to bestow on the Astonishing Stories now. In no order because I am under orders from no one.

Best Cautionary Tale For The Paranoid
Margaret Atwood, “Lusus Naturae”
The main character is turning into a monster. It’s so scary because she’s so human. It could happen to you! It could.

Coolest Mystery I Almost Figured Out
Daniel Handler, “Delmonico”
Clues make more sense in the rear view mirror.

Best Attempt to Play Off My Catholicism-Approved Pagan Fears
Poppy Z. Brite, “The Devil of Delery Street”
Now I’m even more afraid of every little noise.

Story Which Gives the Reader The Most Credit
China Miéville, “Reports of Certain Events In London”
Original from the first word to the last. (Spoiler Alert: Those words are “on” and “rest.”)

Most Ungenerous Horror Story
Peter Straub, “Mr. Aickman’s Air Rifle”
It made more sense than Twin Peaks, but I just didn’t follow. Throw me a bone, Mr. Straub.

Most Blatant Attempt To Blow Your Mind
Steve Erickson, “Zeroville”
Didn’t quite work out, though.

Most Engrossing Story
Charles D’Ambrosio, “The Scheme of Things”
I was totally hooked.

Most Winding and Wild
David Mitchell, “What You Do Not Know You Want”
Never knew what would happen next, but I knew it’d cool.

Story Which Made Me Most Nostalgic For A Genre I Barely Knew
Heidi Julavitz, “The Miniaturist”
This one scared me too. It was a crazy paisley of horror imagery but still effective.

Most Exhausting Treadmill
Roddy Doyle, “The Child”
Just didn’t care for it.

Most Predictable But Still Cool But Still Neat Horror Story
Ayelet Waldman, “Minnow”
Yeah. Saw it coming, didn’t care that much.

Biggest Upset
Stephen King, “Lisey and the Madman”
What was I thinking, taking Stephen Effin King for an underdog in a genre-riffic story collection? He kicked ass.

Prettiest Balloon
Jonathan Lethem, “Vivian Relf”
So ornate you don’t care it it’s empty. Is it even empty?

Most Chilling
Jason Roberts, “7C”
If I had seen Memento, I would note that this story freaked me out in the same way.

Best Resuscitation of an Edgar Allan Poe Anecdote
Joyce Carol Oates, “The Fabled Lighthouse at Via del Mar”
She took a dormant Poe idea and came up with a madman tale he’d’ve been proud of. I can’t wait to meet my dream Cyclophagus.

Hannah Tinti, "Reasonable Terms"

The giraffes at the zoo make up a list of demands.

(from Animal Crackers)

In this story, the giraffes are more-or-less sentient beings, capable of rational thought, bargaining, protest and hope. And while their skill for communicating with humans is limited, there’s no denying their intelligence once they’ve written up that list of demands and handed it to the zookeeper. After that, this story reminded me of Family Guy a little, where you don’t know whether anybody can understand the baby and you can’t see any good reason they made Brian a dog in the first place. And so, parts of “Reasonable Terms” feels like a satire, other parts are the real world, and we’re pulled along for the ride. Thankfully we are in good hands.

Joyce Carol Oates, “The Fabled Light-House at Viña del Mar”

A man agrees to live alone in a lighthouse and keep a diary.

(from McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, only one more to go!)

The whole time I was reading this absurd tale of loneliness and descent into madness, set in the mid-1800s and with occasional shout-outs to Philly, I was thinking it was cast in shades of Edgar Allan Poe (though not the ending, that’s got hues of Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos), and sure enough, on the last page, the origin is revealed:

“The Fabled Light-House at Viña del Mar” has been suggested by the one-page manuscript fragment “The Light-House,” found among the papers of Edgar Allan Poe after his death in 1849.

Which means he wrote down this little idea and Joyce Carol Oates saw something special in it and turned it into the dark spectacle I just read. Excellent.

I too should like to leave behind a fragment some author-genius could resurrect. Here goes:

A man rides a horse across the modern-day United States, solving crimes, helping the poor and reuniting squabbling families.

Hm. Perhaps at best it could end up as a one-hour action-drama. I’ll take it.

Stuart Dybek, “Breasts”

A hitman keeps running into old girlfriends every time he’s about to kill a crooked bookie.

(from The Best American Short Stories, 2004)

This one has it all: guns, mafia, sex, drugs, horse racing, a masked wrestler, carrier pigeons and a perfect, if smoky, ending. Not actual smoke.
This was a long one (43 pages); totally worth the time. The action was fast and the sensory stimulation so strong, I couldn’t help but re-imagine this as a kickass cult-hit kinda movie. With a different title, of course.
For some reason this story also reinvigorated my faith in the Best American series. I mean, what’s this mob story doing in the same neighborhood as Alice Munro and John Updike? Of course, that’s just my unfounded misconception; this series is by no means snobby. It’s just that “Breasts” is such a “genre” story, seemingly more comfortable in a certain chamber alongside other astonishing stories.

Catherine Brady, "Written In Stone"

He left her for another woman, but still comes by every Tuesday for drinks and dinner.

(from The Best American Short Stories, 2004)

The narrator’s emotions remain mysterious. She sees all and understands all, but how does she feel about it? We don’t know, not really, and that makes this story particularly enjoyable to read. Amidst the chaos of cultural and social differences, heartbreak and weakness, the author holds us steady. Everything important is in focus. The author keeps the windshield clear. Maybe I’m barking up at the wrong moon on this one. Who knows? Catherine Brady knows.

Constance Lang-Lynard, "Accidents for Sale"

The old lady who frequents the local accident stores finally buys one for herself.

(from The First Line, Spring 2004)

Not a tightly written story, but very imaginative and fun. This is sort of a dark, Roald Dahlian tale, with its own mixed up version of reality. It doesn’t make a ton of sense, but it plays by its own rules and makes you smile.

The First Line (linked here) is a publication which chooses the first sentence and lets authors build the story from there. This time the sentence was “There were five of them, which was two more than I’d been expecting.” The line didn’t figure in the story very much, but it didn’t seem out of place, either.