“The Law of Strings” by Steven Gillis

Hello, Story366! Back at you for Short Story Month after taking the weekend off. Got a lot of yard work done, ate some good meals, saw Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, watched the Cubs, including that eighteen-innning marathon last night (none of this Cubs business turned out well, by the way), and generally avoided grading before the big dump that’s coming this week. So, no short story blogging, and because this isn’t 2016, I’m quite okay with that. Heck, if I don’t get this done and posted by midnight, I won’t even hate myself (Note: It’s the next morning and me and I are on relatively good terms).

Today, I read from Steven Gillis‘ most recent story collection, The Law of Strings, from Atticus Books. I should reveal here that Steve and I have a pretty intimate relationship, in that Steve is one of the co-founders of Dzanc Books, where my first collection, Elephants in Our Bedroom, appeared back in 2009. On top of being one of the gents (along with Dan Wickett, a statue of whom I have in my back yard, fountain-style) who launched my career, he also personally edited the manuscript, making me kill my darlings, axe my babies, harpoon my pets, and poison my beloved. He made me a better writer, left me with a better book. So, FYI, as you read this glowing review.

I realized it kind of sucks for me, in that light, to not have read this book before, but hey, that’s all fixed now, right? Right. I sat on my front porch, tried to catch my newly planted flowers in the act of  growing, and really dove in, trying to get a good handle on what it is that Gillis does with the form. From what I can tell, Gillis is an ephemeral storyteller, not afraid to experiment with ideas, as well as voice, narration, and structure, and to make references to smart people-type things like physics and philosophy. On top of all that, the stories I read were all very matter-of-factly told, almost metafictionally, as if the narrators knew they were telling stories, or at least that they were trying to explain something about their characters, something much more deliberate than an average narrator. I liked being told so much as I read, the effect that this stylistic choice induced, as if Gillis were trying to take a step back, remove the narrator from the action as much as possible, but still maintain authority. Overall, this choice makes Gillis’ stories sound unique, giving Gillis his own brand, his own style. In that way, this collection is both tight and unique.

In choosing a story to write about, I’m heading to my default, the title story, “The Law of Strings,” quite a solid piece of fiction. “The Law of Strings” is about Lange, a physics grad student who is dating/lives with another physics grad student, Eva. The story opens with Lange observing Eva, who is sleeping in their bed, tied down with string, why we’re not told. Next scene, we back up to a couple of nights, when the pair are at a party and Eva is being courted by a man named Jayson, a courting that’s going quite successfully. Eva is clearly intrigued with Jayson, first chatty then handsy, and Lange knows it—and Eva knows he knows it. On their way home, their relationship fluxing in dire straits, Eva makes a suggestion, the one that leads to us to that opening scene, her tied to their bed with string.

More or less, this is Eva’s plan: If Lange wants to keep her around, and she wants to stay, she’d better tie herself down, make it impossible for her to leave, as wandering bodies will wander if not tethered by some force. Once Eva’s properly secured, Lange watches her sleep—he’s not allowed on the bed with her—contemplating exactly what his course of action is. All of this tying up is Eva’s idea, but, you know, it’s resoundingly odd and Lange knows it—what’s Eva playing at. This is where that distant narration comes in handy, us believing all of this because it’s coming from this really exacting, neutral perspective.

The story is more than Eva tied to the bed, as eventually, logistics take over: Eva has to eat and go to the bathroom. Then, Lange and Eva’s weekend takes turns, some logical, some unpredictable, leading up to a satisfying denouement, which I won’t discuss here. However, that’s just the plot, leaving much to be said about Gillis’ approach, his themes, and how the story reads. A lot of this has to do with physics somehow, or at least that’s how Gillis plays it, basic theories that I didn’t understand in high school or college, and don’t fully understand here. Lange and Eva are physicists, remember, so Lange incites a lot of physicists—to name one, in the first paragraph, there’s reference to a book by Jerzy Kowalsky-Glikman, who, according Wikipedia, is indeed a physicist—and without reading a whole lot of stuff I still wouldn’t understand, I’ll just concede that it’s important. But it’s not only physics at work here, as there’s just as much psychology, if not more, making the story so interesting, not to mention disturbing.

Steven Gillis is a publisher, editor, and author, and he does all of them rather well. I’m glad I got to read from The Law of Strings today, that I got to know these stories, to see what  Steve does, time after time, in this form. These are challenging but rewarding stories, but they’re also weird and funny. I enjoyed this book a lot.

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“The Real Natasha” by Michael Leone

Happy Friday, Story366! So glad to be here finally, at the end of the semester! Welcome to day 1 of the best summer of my life! Grades are turned in and summer is here! I’m going to write a novel, get in shape, get my house in shape, plant the best garden ever, spend a ton of time with my family, travel the world, and maybe even change the world while I’m traveling it. So much is possible on the first day of summer break!

Only, for some reason, MSU is the only school that has not only one but two more weeks left before summer—a week of classes and then finals. I’m not done until two Fridays from now, with a whole lot of grading and grade-figuring in-between. Why is that all my teacher friends are talking about submitting final grades today, about leaving town, about really enjoying Cinco de Mayo, and I have two weeks left? Why?! We did have an extra week for the winter break this year—which I wouldn’t trade, not even now—but why are we going so late? I’m going to be turning in grades and handing out trick-or-treat candy at the same time, surely some kind of record.

Okay, but enough bitching. I’m sure all of my readers who don’t get four months off a year—to pursue scholarly endeavors, of course—feel sorry for me and my impending two weeks of work. I’ve made mention to people of how truncated my breaks feel in the pat, people like my siblings, and they’ve pointed out what a spoiled ass hole I am as they get like two weeks off a year and most of that time is spent at dentist appointments and wakes. But hey, that’s what siblings are for when you’re the youngest of seven. So, bring on the last week of classes. Bring on finals. Bring on grading. Bring on trick-or-treaters.

For today’s post, I read from Michael Leone’s 2017 collection The Real Natasha, out from Braddock Avenue Books. This makes five 2017 collections this week, books I’ve been assembling since the start of the year. I picked up The Real Natasha at the Braddock Avenue table at AWP and have itching to get inside since. Reading a few stories, I see the wait was worth it, as Leone writes fun, innovative tales, including “Minutes,” a story written in the form of English Department meeting minutes, as recorded by an angry, NTT faculty member who puts a very particular spin on the meeting’s proceedings. The form—actual outlined minutes—plus the I-didn’t-see-that-coming ending, makes it a piece I foresee me sharing with students for semesters to come. For whatever reason, though, I’m writing about the title story, “The Real Natasha,” instead, as I find it compelling in another way.

“The Real Natasha” is about this unnamed protagonist who is in love, in love with Natasha. She is his dream woman, accepting all of his faults—impressed, even, that he’s a New Jersey hot dog-eating champion—while shockingly having the exact same interests —amazing because she’s a nubile beauty from the Ukraine. Still, Leone presents the relationship as a match made in heaven. How nice for these characters, for this narrator, you might be thinking as you begin reading, a love story.

Before long, however, this unconditional love appears too good to be true, especially when we find out that the relationship has existed exclusively online. And that Natasha’s visit to America—to marry our hero, of course, be with him forever—is delayed by several factors, though nothing that several thousand dollars, wired directly to her, can’t fix. By this time, all of it is more than fishy, and by the time Natasha disappears—her phone number and email are suddenly disconnected—any reader can figure out that our boy’s been had.

What’s great about Leone’s story, however, isn’t this revelation, but instead how committed Leone is to keeping this Romeo in the dark. After our boy gets fleeced and still can’t get ahold of Natasha, he takes the only logical next step: He flies to the Ukraine to track Natasha down. Once there, having spent another fortune on his ticket, he goes to Natasha’s address and what do you know, he doesn’t find her; this online charlatan somehow not at the address she gave him, the address to which he’s been sending letters, pictures, money, and his heart. Still, he persists. Outside, he runs into a local tough named Punka, who insists he knows Natasha and can take him to her. They drive outside of the city, to an abandoned field, and as our guy is looking all over, wondering if his Natasha is somehow occupying this abandoned, isolated space, Punka is brandishing a pipe and demanding he take off all his clothes.

I won’t go any further with the plot, reveal any more of the humiliations our guy endures, or let you know just how far he’s willing to go to find Natasha, his beloved. Leone is unrelenting, though, in what he’s willing to put this poor sap through, all the time winking at us. That sounds like an unreliable narrator to me, and for sure, this might be the most unreliable narrator in the history of unreliable narrators. There was a point, I have to admit, that I thought to myself, Wow, this is all pretty obviously a scam, but as Leone’s game becomes apparent, I was on board, no matter how long he was going to play it.

I’ve enjoyed all of the new collections I’ve read this week, and Michael Leone’s The Real Natasha is no exception. Leone seems to like to play with all kinds of forms and conventions, all in the name of good fun. I really connected with Leone’s sense of humor, with his ideas, with his world view. This is a damn fine collection, perfect for a Friday with the sun shining, perfect for any day you’re looking for good stories.

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“Now, in the Not Quite Dark” by Dana Johnson

Hey hey, Story366! Coming at you yet again, for a fourth day in a row, with another story, from another collection, by another author. All of this love has been in the name of Short Story Month, but really, some of these books I’ve covered so far this week—Eric Buchner’s and Mariana Enriquez’s, namely—have been on my desk here for a couple of months and I’ve been itching to open them up and read their offerings. The third book on that pile has been Dana Johnson‘s In the Not Quite Darkfrom Counterpoint Press, which I’m covering today, so the three collections burning a hole in my pocket are taken care of—from here on out I’ll just move on to the fifty or so other books on my desk that I also want to read and write about.

Interlude: Story366, as a daily blog in 2016, served in a minor way as a living document of history. Most of that was my own history, me telling you what I’d been up to in my life, with some specific references and passages to things like holidays, world events, and of course, the Cubs’ first World Series victory in 108 years (I ran into Roy Kesey at AWP in DC, after writing about his book the day the Cubs won the Series, and he thanked me for pointing out how much more his story was about the Cubs than he ever realized). I wrote about books. I noted when a celebrity died. And much too often, I commented on the weather.

And sometimes, when it was important, I made notes about politics. I never wanted Story366 to be a political rant, for me to tie any particular author’s book to any particular event, to any day in history, as maybe that’s not fair to their book. Still, if I want this to be a living archive, and I’m going to talk about shit like the weather, what I’m making for dinner, and the Cubs, it seems like I should also take note of when, oh, the House of Representatives fucks all middle and lower-class Americans by passing through a terrible health care bill, one that will just about kill every citizen with existing conditions. I mean, don’t you think I should bring something like that up? Make note in the Comments section if you think I’m off (or on) about this.

In any case, moving on to In the Not Quite Dark. What a book! You know, it’s the end of the semester here at MSU, and yesterday, I passed out a list of terms to my intro students, the vocab list that will be covered on the final. I asked my classes to mark off the terms that they didn’t know so we could talk about them, and one term that came up was “psychic distance.” This wasn’t a term I ever heard in my creative writing classes, not in undergrad or grad school, though over the years, as a writer and editor, I’d read about psychic distance and could certainly tell anyone who asked what it is, what purpose it serves in fiction, and why a fiction writer should know it. Coming to MSU in 2012, I found out it was a much more text-oriented curriculum, fiction vocab lists suddenly a thing when I’d never really encountered them before—in my own workshops, vocab lists were just running mental inventories, things I heard in class, things I picked up and defined via context, nothing I was ever officially tested on; I’d never had a final in a creative writing class, but here, we have finals in every class, and because we’re not going to pass out blue books and have students write stories as time ticks away, a vocab test is the logical alternative. As a result, terms like “psychic distance” and “universal paradox” and “vivid and continuous dream” are now part of my consciousness. That’s good, though: I’m a professor and I should know this shit.

In any case, since talking to my classes yesterday, I have psychic distance on my mind, and maybe that’s why I was thinking about psychic distance while reading Johnson’s stories, as man, she really gets into her characters’ heads. The stories I read from In the Not Quite Dark are what I would dub “ephemeral,” stories that investigate each of their protagonists’ most inner thoughts (i.e., close psychic distance). Put simply, it’s not so much what the characters do—though I loved what happens in these stories, too—but how Johnson depicts what’s going on in their heads. I really enjoyed stories like “The Liberace Museum,” but today I’ll focus on “Now, in the Not Quite Dark,” the (mostly) title story, as it’s my favorite of the bunch.

“Now, in the Not Quite Dark” is about Dean, a guy living in LA in an old (circa 1905) building called the Pacific Electric Building, where he hangs out with his mom on the roof, sipping drinks and talking about the things that bother him. That super-close third-person narrator describes Dean as a haunted guy, haunted mainly by people who have left him. When he was a kid, Dean used to get all anxious about people leaving him, whether it was his mom just in the bathroom, or a stranger he met a story he knew he’d never see again. Eventually, those types of departures Dean could handle, but his anxiety matures, Dean spending a lot of time thinking about the people in the world, in his world, who have come and gone. The mailbox captions down in the Pacific Electric lobby, for example, are outdated, but Dean is obsessed by the names, people who used to live in the building, people who moved, people who have long since died. He thinks about them, their last names, and longs for them. Can I name another story or novel in which this type of anxiety is the protagonist’s primary characteristic? No, and that’s why Johnson’s story is sticking with me, her original and creative characterization. Dean seems so real because of this, like someone I know, someone I’ve known all my life.

Dean makes other observations, too, about life and death. His building also happens to double as a generic New York apartment building for the crime drama CSI: New York, the actor Gary Sinise sometimes hanging out on another floor, shooting a scene with a playing-dead actor under a tarp; ironically, during one shoot, a Pacific Electric resident has actually died, so on one floor, actors are pretending to investigate, and just below, real police and a real coroner were doing so on a real corpse. For someone with Dean’s demons, this type of coincidence seems like a mental Christmas, so much to think on, so much to ponder, so much to fear.

Vignettes like this CSI thing inhabit the majority of “Now, in the Not Quite Dark,” as Dean and his mom hang out. Johnson presents other characters, other missing persons, such as Sippy, a weird, creepy kid Dean remembers from his childhood, and most notably, the woman who was found dead in the water tower two buildings over. Dean has obsessed over this, as at first, this woman was a citywide missing persons case, on the news non-stop, then discovered so close to Dean, that water tower in full view of his lawn chair, in his sightline the entire time: Dean had been staring at the dead woman, in a way, without knowing it.

At the core, though, this story is about Dean, his relationship with his mother, his relationship with himself. Dean is a guy who has a lot haunting him, but really, he’s okay with that. Worrying about the departed is what Dean does, like a present-day Gabriel Conroy, only it’s not only Michael Furey he’s fretting, everyone and anyone instead.

Dana Johnson has written a collection of top-notch fiction in In the Not Quite Dark, dense, rewarding stories that I enjoyed reading, enjoyed getting to know. Some of the deepest, best characterization I’ve seen, which is saying a lot, these figures staying with me as if I were Dean himself, unable to forget a single one.

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“Things We Lost in the Fire” by Mariana Enriquez

Good evening, Story366! Here we are on Day 3 of Short Story Month and I’m still reading new books and blogging. Hooray for me! Still no promises on doing this every day this month—in fact, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to do that—but hey, who’s counting?

Third day back and already I’m starting in on the weather, but holy fuck, it’s been raining. And I when I say raining, I mean raining raining, bull-blown thunderstorms and flash flood warnings. Yesterday? Beautiful sunshine. Every other day since forever? Pouring down rain. Right now? Downpour. Roads are closed, events are being canceled, and I actually wore a poncho to campus today. When will the madness end?

But hey, more rain equals more time to sit inside and read, right? High five! I spent a rainy afternoon in my office reading from Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez, her recent collection from Hogarth. Enriquez is an Argentinian writer who writes in Spanish and has for a long time, very successfully, but this is her first collection in English, translated by Megan Mcdowell. As with Eric Puchner and Lesley Nneka Arimah the last couple of days, I’ve not read anything by Enriquez before, but again, that’s now been rectified.

I read three random stories in Things We Lost in the Fire, starting with the title story, then moving around to titles that interested me. I enjoyed “The Intoxicated Years,” about three women who delve deeper and deeper into substances as their friendships evolve. I also hit “No Flesh over Our Bones,” which follows a young girl who finds a skull in an alley and makes it her best friend. For today’s post, I’ll write about that title story, however, as it’s the one that’s sticking with me, though I easily could have written about any of these, as they’re all rather excellent.

“Things We Lost in the Fire” is certainly the most serious story I read from Enriquez’s book, chronicling an unfortunate phenomenon, women lighting themselves on fire in ceremonial protests, protests protesting several incidents of men setting their women on fire. The story begins with a stark description of a character known as subway girl, a burn victim who panhandles through the city subway system, attacked and nearly killed by a psycho boyfriend. Subway girl is as tragic a story as a writer can make up, but Enriquez makes her compelling, too, drawing us in right away.

A second woman’s story follows, a supermodel dating a soccer star—this time, the victim doesn’t survive. Sadly, while both subway girl and the model lie unconscious in the hospital, post-attack, their respective boyfriends tell the police the women set themselves on fire, generally hoping the women die so they don’t get indicted. This is what eventually inspires, ironically, the women to light themselves on fire in protest, the fact that everyone finds it so easy to believe in the first place.

The story is told through the eyes of Silvina, a young woman who witnesses a lot of the horrors of this abuse, both in person (she encounters subway girl regularly) and on TV. Silvina’s mother and mother’s best friend (an aunt-type) become heavily involved in the movement as well, giving aid to the burned women, both before and after they make their crucial choice.

The pure tragedy of “Things We Lost in the Fire” makes it worth telling, but Enriquez gives us a whole lot to think about. What’s most depressing about this story is how easy all of this is to believe, that a patten of abuse like this is possible—not a stretch at all, if you’ve been watching the news—and that it would lead to this sort of statement, this sort of reaction. Maybe it’s the 2017 in me talking, but this story seems terrifyingly real, maybe too real. And that’s why it’s so powerful, why I enjoyed it as much as I did.

Overall, I’m really liking Things We Lost in the Fire, the first of Mariana Enriquez’s books to come to us in English. I look forward to delving into each and every story in this collection. This is a real talent, someone to check out for sure.

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“What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky” by Lesley Nneka Arimah

Hey there, Story366! So far so good on me posting every day during Short Story Month. Yesterday got me over a bit of a blogging block, and today? I was eager to jump into a new book, read some new stories, and write (semi-) critically again. It’s an absolutely beautiful day in the Ozarks, too, and as soon as I’m done with this post, I’m headed out with the family for a nice hike, something to get some vitamin A into our blood (if that’s how sunlight works—I have no idea).

Backtracking a bit, not only did I not write a post for two months, but I even divorced myself from looking at the blog, especially the Stats page. Last year, I religiously checked the numbers, wanting to know how many hits I was getting, at what time, trying to figure the best time to post, what my audience was. Two months removed from any new material, I was understandably worried that the blog had gone by the wayside, nobody visiting, that the stats would be way down. Some days, I was sure, would see zero hits. Not the case, I found yesterday, not at all. In fact, the month of March, in which I posted exactly once, on the first day, saw more hits than five months from 2016, months that I was posting every day; April, which had just ended, saw more hits than two of those months, all without a single post, let alone visits from its maker. So, even though I’ve neglected my baby, people are still visiting Story366, in some ways more than ever. In my mind, this has marked this project as an official success: The blog is working as a living archive, which is what I had always envisioned, what I have always wanted. So, thank you, all of you, for visiting, for reading, and for endorsing. Even when I wasn’t.

Today, I dove into a book I bought over the weekend at the Springfield B&N, What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah, out from Riverhead Books. This is Arimah’s debut effort, and despite one of the stories appearing in The New Yorker and another in my beloved Mid-American Review (after my time there), I hadn’t read her work before. So, in other words, I ran into her book just in time.

I started with the two lead stories, “The Future Looks Good” and “War Stories,” both of which I liked a lot. The former has a really interesting approach to structure and timeframes, unlike anything I’ve read before, while “War Stories” (the one from MAR) features a little girl who takes her father’s tutelage a little too seriously. I then skipped ahead to the title story, as I often do, and found my favorite of the three.

“What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky” is set in 2030, after a Chilean mathematician named Francisco Furcal discovers an infinite equation (as in, the equation never ends, like the decimal places of pi) that unlocks the secrets of life. Literally, mathematicians in 2030 can use Furcal’s Formula (what the kids call it) to solve all kinds of human problems. Some mathematicians use it to take away people’s pain. Some use it to teach human flight. Some, including our protagonist, Nneoma, use it to take away people’s sadness. In most cases, Furcal’s Formula and its applications seem to work; like with any medical breakthrough, however, there are side effects, and Furcal’s Formula is no exception.

The story starts, actually, with one of these alleged side effects, as a man, taught to fly using the formula, falls to his death from above the clouds (hence our title). Nneoma knows what this means, that use of the formula will garner a ton of negative press in the media, perhaps affecting her job, her ability to help people. Nneoma is one of the sadness mathematicians, and in a way we don’t really understand (of course we don’t, as it’s not real), she uses this math equation, or a part of it, to assume people’s tragedies upon herself. In this way, Nneoma is kind of a sin eater, only in her case, a bluesy-blues eater. It doesn’t sound like the happiest career, math + depression, but hey, she’s making a difference, and there are people all over the world who have her skill—in fact, another cool thing about this story is that Arimah makes using Furcal’s Formula akin to being able to use the Force: Either you understand and can manipulate the formula or you can’t. One of Nneoma’s side jobs is to search Africa for more people who share her gift (though Arimah is wise enough to avoid midichlorians). Once the guy falls from the sky, the story is basically Nneoma reacting to that, doing her job, hoping she can continue her work.

All of this is set against the backdrop of Nigeria, but actually Biafra, as it’s the future and there’s been another civil war, splitting the countries (Biafra defecting was the cause of the Nigerian Civil War, 1967-1970) officially. Arimah was born in Britain and lives in the U.S., but was raised in Nigeria, so this is her territory, the place and themes that inhabit all the stories I’ve read so far. For me, this is another bonus of What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, exposure to this culture, to this history, something I had almost zero knowledge of this morning.

In the end, Nneoma faces problems more immediate to her than some man falling from the sky on the other side of the world. Assuming all of that grief, over decades, is taking its toll, we find out, and might be connected to one colleague’s suicide and another’s disappearance. All in all, there’s a lot going on in “What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky,” impossible, seemingly, for one short story, and I loved reading every word of it. I admire the collection, too, full of challenging language and structures and extremely inventive stories. What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky is a tremendous debut, a collection I know I’ll go back to, over and over.

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“Beautiful Monsters” by Eric Puchner

It’s been a while, Story366! To say the least, as it’s been two months—two!—since I last posted at the ol’ story-a-day blog. Sure, I never thought I’d do one every day again, not since pulling that off for the entirety of 2016, but I also didn’t think it would take me two months to write a post. Sure enough, however, I last wrote on March 1, and while I’m no scientist, I’m pretty sure that’s two months, Leap Year or no Leap Year (checked: it’s not a Leap Year).

In any case, you may be wondering—or you may not be wondering—what I’ve been up to for two months, all that blogging time suddenly freed up. I wish I could report that I’ve whipped myself into shape, have fixed every lingering repair in my house and in the yard, and have completed my long-forming novel, all goals I set out for myself at the start of this non-daily blogging year. If I said any of those things, dear readers, I’d be lying. However, to some degree, I have actually made progress. In that time, I’ve managed to actually get the dust off the treadmill and can run for a bit without dying. I still have lingering repairs, but not quite as many (okay, I’ve changed a couple of lightbulbs and screwed on a couple of cabinet doors). And while I haven’t finished any novels lately, I have actually written a couple of stories, have revised another, and heck, might even write some later tonight.

On the more positive end, I have gotten my yard into shape, especially the front, clearing out a lot of dead brush and leaves, mowing and trimming with regularity, and best of all, there’s a new perennial garden where our ornamental plum fell last fall. The oldest boy and I have been working on Scouting advancements more, as he’s now a Boy instead of a Cub. Best of all, I turned my office—which looked like it had been tossed by movie criminals looking for a hidden hard drive—into a ridiculously clean habitat of efficiency and creativity. For the first time in my teaching career—twenty-three years now—I’m actually on top of my grading, even ahead.

Do I owe all of these upswings to neglecting this blog? No, not really. As the Karen points out, I led a decently productive life last year and posted every day. Maybe I just feel more accomplished, more well rounded now. Yeah, that’s the ticket: well rounded.

Today being the start of Short Story Monthall of these new collections starting to collect dust on my shelf, I decided to get back into it. My first instinct was, “I’ll do one every day in May!” Immediately, my second instinct was, “Don’t promise that, you idiot—it’s the end of the semester and you’ll have a shit-ton of grading to do next week.” Karen, of course, seeing me reading today, figured out exactly whatI was up to—me skulking off with a collection in hand probably gave her some PTSD—but opined, “You should do one every day this month!” I’m not making any promises. It’s May 1, I’m here with a new post, and yeah, I enjoyed getting back to reading something new, to expressing my thoughts with words. But May is one of the longest months—tied for first place with six other months—so all I can say now is we’ll see how it goes.

Today’s feature story is “Beautiful Monsters” from Eric Puchner‘s collection Last Day on Earth, out earlier this year from Scribner. This is my first foray into work by Puchner, who also has a novel, Model Home, and a previous collection, Music Through the Floor. Throw Puchner onto the How haven’t I read this guy before? pile, but here I am, fixing the hell out of that. I read the first three stories from Last Day on Earth—which didn’t include the title story—and “Beautiful Monsters” is the one that’s sticking with me the most. So, here we go.

“Beautiful Monsters” is set in some alternate/dystopian future of our society where people are raised as perennials (like those new flowers in my front yard!), people who seem to never get old, remaining small children for the entirety of their lives; Puchner never explains how this happens, but we do know that the two main characters, the boy and the girl, look around nine years old, but the girl is thirty. I suspect it’s some sort of cloning, some sort of drug treatment, or some other kind of sciencey flux capacitor that’s made this possible, but I didn’t really care how it happened because it just is that way and I bought it.

In any case, the boy and the girl—who may or may not be brother and sister, and/or may or may not be romantically linked—are hanging around their house one day when they see an adult male skulking around in their back yard, picking apples off their tree. Right away, on the first page, Puchner makes it clear that this is odd, as the boy has not only never seen an adult human before, but he goes to fetch his family .22 to shoo this intruder away. The man, picking the apples because he’s starving, is full-blown caveman, sporting long, straggly hair, yellow, crooked teeth, and clothing made from animal skins. We find out, after the man has assuaged himself into the house, that he’s part of a rebellious little band of realish people, dubbed Senescents here, who have been surviving in the rough up in the mountains, only to have a fire, and government troops (who just may have caused the fire) chase them down into the subdivisions. There, the troops can round them up more easily, as yeah, most of the kid-people like the boy and the girl turn them in, if not taking the Senescents out all by themselves—a pretty hefty bounty is put on information leading to their capture, etc, etc.

In the meanwhile, the man is dealing with a pretty bad wound on his leg while the kids take care of him in their home, society none the wiser. They go to work—the boy builds houses and the girl works in data collection—and both of them watch the man, amazed that he’s so old and does things so oddly. Pretty soon, the man, as injured and stinky as he is, starts taking on a paternal role, even threatening punishment if the kids don’t listen to what he says—instinct has taken over and the adult has started ordering the kids around. That wound on his leg isn’t getting any better, placing a clock on this emerging relationship, also stunted by an increased search for more of the Senescents—it’s implied the man is the last of his tribe.

I won’t go any further into the plot, as it winds down rather quickly from there. I like this story for a variety of reasons, including the basic sci-fi premise, Puchner’s convincing descriptions, but especially for how the relationship between the boy and girl and the man quickly evolves (just like the man does after a shower, shave, and change of clothes). Puchner really has fun with this inverted fish-out-of-water story, but also adds a real tenderness to the relationship. Perhaps, Puchner might be saying, people need parental guidance and affection more than they need immortality. Surely, things cross into Huxley territory, with a little Logan’s Run thrown in, but Puchner keeps it fresh with specific details and some pretty dynamite prose.

Last Day on Earth, three stories in, is a promisingly geat collection, Eric Puchner apparently rather eclectic. It opens with “Brood X,” a coming-of-age tale set against the coming of the cicadas. Next comes “Beautiful Monsters. Finally I read “Mothership,” about a woman who’s having a bad go of it, but isn’t getting the attention she craves. I liked all three and want to read the rest of the book, another solid addition to the 2017 short story collection roster.

 

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