Monthly Archives: December 2009

Kurt Vonnegut, "The Nice Little People"

A man finds a knife that turns out to be a little spaceship containing a tiny crew.

(from Look at the Birdie)

Once, in a creative writing course back in college, the prof asked each of us to pick a story for a sort of unofficial dream anthology. A burgeoning Kurt Vonnegut completist, I chose “Thomas Edison’s Shaggy Dog.” Fine, said the professor, but it’s not actually a well-written story. Back then I was like whatevs but now, with some time and mileage between the then me and the now, I get what he’s saying. (To quote Craig Finn: “All your favorite books/ They wouldn’t seem so well-written if you were just a little bit more well-read.”) And it applies to this story too, and to a lot of KV’s early sci-fi short pieces. The prose is so spare it borders on artless, and the surprise endings are telegraphed almost from page one. I’m still a a KV completist, so I’ll keep reading — and there’s plenty to enjoy within these pieces of previously unpublished Vonnegutiae — but Sirens of Titans this is not.

Ted Kosmatka, "N-Words"

After getting cloned back into existence, modern neanderthals suffer the familiar struggles of the different.

(from Seeds of Change)

They came from test tubes. They came pale as ghosts with eyes as blue-white as glacier ice. They came first out of Korea.

Kind of an awesome race-relations story. And, as per sci-fi tradition, the monster here was… man! High-concept, you might call it, but mostly driven by supple, vivid prose. (Listen to an audio version of the story here.) I haven’t read anything quite like this before, but long after put the book down, I realized the idea wasn’t a completely foreign one.

Those frakkin Geico Cavemen. Seems like most of my fellow humans now hate, or have always hated, those shelf-browed accidental pitchmen, who started out as mango-salsa eating metrosexuals and now seem to just be broken-spirited dudes who just want you to let them be themselves for awhile. I never saw the doomed TV show, no regrets there — it was likely the hideous result of a marketing hivemind straying from its natural habitat. Lame, I mean.

But I do actually feel bad for those guys. Everywhere they go, they are reminded of the prevailing myth that they are stupid, inferior, without equality in society. They can’t even bowl without having their flat noses rubbed in the bigotry of their oppressors. ’Cause down comes that Geico-logoed pinsetter to put them in their place.
And the real twist of the knife is this: It’s all a joke. These cavemen, who never asked to exist, show up just long enough to be shat on by their creator (who may or may not be a smug, colonialist gecko; at the very least, he’s their overpaid golden boy peer). But what is clearly true psychic pain to them, is, inexplicably, a way to sell car insurance for some unseen but inescapable corporation. I don’t mean to belittle those who, you know, actually currently exist and still struggle for equal treatment and rights, but I wonder if they don’t see themselves in these downtrodden straw cavemen who were created only because mocking every other upright subset of the human experience has been taken off the table when it comes to acceptable derision.

When they came for the cavemen, we said nothing because we knew there was nobody else for them to come for.

Except aliens. And Big Foot. Possibly ghosts.

But after that, we could tell ourselves that, in polite conversation and publicly aired commercials, all sentient beings were guaranteed the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, allowed to be themselves for awhile.

Tess Gallagher, "King Death"

An old homeless guy starts hanging out in the neighborhood.

(from The Man from Kinvara)

Didn’t enjoy this one. Not horrible, just limp. It was simplistic in its handling of of poverty and addiction, like an after-school special. And its sentences often ran one phrase too long; nothing worse than a story that wastes your time. I’m a reader, not an inpatient. I can do something else. I did muddle through to see if it ended in precisely the maudlin non-crescendo I expected. I was close.
To be fair, I probably wasn’t going to be fair. There were a lot of things stacked up against this collection, which has been sitting on my bedroom floor since I snagged it from work a few months ago. 1) Look at that oil-painted cover. This thing looks like the boringest of all boring litmags — the kind even I wouldn’t buy. 2) “Selected Stories” is almost always a hint that what lies within isn’t fun. At best it’ll be respected. 3) The back cover is full of blurbs written in black on charcoal. 4) That might actually be a good thing. This way I can’t read whatever uninteresting thing Haruki Murikami has to say. Going in, the lone upside was the title. “King Death” coulda been so metal.

Wells Tower, "Raw Water"

An older couple moves to a nearly-deserted development around a bright red, man-made lake.

(from McSweeney’s 32)

This was a different kind of story for Wells Tower, a sort of Stephen King meets Charles Bukowski deal, maybe. As strange as this is, the really really weird stuff will probably happen a hundred pages past the place “Raw Water” ends. But then we’d be looking at purer breed of genre fiction, a regular old horror story. I wouldn’t have minded seeing how this whole mess ends, but I understand the author’s desire to call it quits early. The conclusion is predetermined, even if it isn’t written.
Tomorrow McSweeney’s #33 comes out. I’m looking forward to their version of a newspaper.

Ander Monson, "Weep No More Over This Event"

A divorced man may or may not be losing his mind after he shoots an intruder in his home.

(from Tin House, Vol. 11, #1)

I found out later you can set the system, which is admittedly pretty glorious, to keep someone from leaving the house, too, though I did not read the entire instruction manual at the time and it would only seem important to me later, like most realizations I have had in my life.

The uncertainty comes not from whether the man is losing his grip on reality, but when it started. I like this narrator. He’s unreliable (always a good thing) but also, for a while, totally sympathetic. And yet, there were little hints not to trust the guy. I don’t wanna spoil it, but I’ll say this: A+ for the gradual revelation of madness.
Read some of this story here. Learn more about Ander Monson here.