David S. Grant
Brown Paper Publishing ($13.00)
by Clifford Garstang
A casual reader may find this slim short-fiction collection entertaining. It’s filled with apparently young people who drink a lot (sometimes in Ireland, sometimes in Paris, usually in New York), occasionally take ecstasy or mushrooms or heroin, visit strip clubs, play practical jokes on one another, and are generally bored. The book is fast-paced (it is mostly written in present tense, which gives it an air of immediacy) and its twenty pieces average under five pages each, so the reader’s investment of time is minimal. It’s perfect, in fact, for the kind of shallow people who inhabit its pages.
However, a reader who is interested in the traditional elements of fiction—plot, setting, character—will most likely be disappointed. There is no attempt to build a fictional world or to even describe the real world in which the action (such as it is) supposedly occurs. The reader won’t be able to visualize any of these characters (except in the story where many of the male employees in an office have been disfigured by their kinky female boss) because there are few physical descriptions. And apart from boredom evidenced by constant drinking and drug use there is little in the way of speech, thought, gesture or deed to indicate any kind of emotional depth, unless you count the practical jokers in several of the stories who at least seem to have some goal in mind. And I hesitate to call these fictions “stories” because for the most part they lack plot. Even where they contain forward momentum (the first and last stories are narratives of trips to Ireland and France respectively, with the days of the trip numbered, a device that drags the reader from beginning to end) they lack conflict and tension, so that there is little or no suspense and nothing to be resolved.
There is also little or no imaginative use of language here. Rather, the action is delivered in short bursts of stage direction (much of the book in fact reads more like a series of screenplay treatments than fiction narrative) without figurative elements that we expect in literature. What you see is what you get, for the most part, and maybe that’s the author’s point. The title of the collection is, after all, “Emotionless Souls,” and the individuals the reader encounters here do seem emotionless, not in any metaphorical way but as a reflection of a harsh contemporary reality. Emotionless and, it seems to me, soulless as well.
One exception to the soulless rule appears in the story “Lucy’s Place,” in which a drug overdose leads the narrator to hell (Lucy’s Place—get it?). At least the guy’s soul is implied, even if we see no real evidence of it. The story itself, though, is about the gimmick, not really about the soul.
Some of the pieces in the book feel like they might make good stories if they are fleshed out with scenes and dialogue. “Hero,” for example, is about Mervin, a man who is often in the right place at the right time—to rescue a baby from a burning building, to stop a bank robbery, etc. But it’s a little too much of a coincidence, the story suggests, and that’s a complexity in Mervin’s character that would be worth exploring. Why does he do what he does? Does he speak to anyone? And do his actions lead him into conflict? Is there risk that he’ll be caught? And what would happen if he is? What’s at stake? If these questions were explored this might be an interesting fiction.
What’s at stake? What do the characters want? And what stands in the way? For most of the stories in the book, the reader is left to guess what the characters want and the only thing that stands in the way is the next drink or the next hit of ecstasy. This is a recipe for leaving readers unsatisfied.
Finally, I cannot avoid commenting on the book’s sloppy copy-editing. Even the unobservant will see the numerous errors in spelling and punctuation, and a stickler will be appalled.
In short, this book isn’t for everyone. But if you like in-your-face fiction that dwells in the seamier parts of contemporary society, and if you are content with glimpses into that society, as if in snapshots, rather than the more experiential presentation of traditional fiction, then this book is something you may enjoy.
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