April 17, 2003

Thrilling Tales?

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Michael Chabon, like many people, has a pet theory which he feels the need to share with everyone he meets. In Chabon’s case, that theory is that the landscape of American short fiction would be far richer if it consisted of more than “plotless Joycean short stories.” Unlike most people, Chabon, a Pulizer Prize winner for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, is in a position to put his theory into practice. He did so by soliciting genre fiction from a variety of contemporary authors and anthologizing the stories in McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. Genre fiction, detective, horror, or otherwise, comes with its own rules. The average stories are bound by them, the extraordinary ones warp them, ignore them or reinterpret them: Do Not Reveal Your True Name. Do Not Try To See The Future. The Extraneous Character Did It. And last but not least, If The World Has Gone Horribly Wrong, It Is The Main Character’s Fault.

Rick Moody’s “Albertine Notes” adheres too faithfully to the last rule, producing a predictable end. But before, and even after it does, it establishes such an intense sense of place to leave you gasping. Because the primary setting is a post apocalyptic city, and, proving conclusively that the mind is not its own place, there are frequent visits paid to the memories of those living, dreaming, and dying in the charnel house. Moody knows that cities themselves have memories and dreams, and links the traumatized people inextricably with their ravaged world. The result, if you can ignore the too-neatness of the ending, is something very much like an elegy in the guise of a truly terrifying horror story. Or maybe vice versa.

The book’s biggest disappointment is Glen David Gold’s circus contribution, “The Tears of Squonk.” Gold, whose Carter Beats The Devil was one of the most enjoyable novels of the past few years, comes up with an intriguing setting, relatively complex characters, and what should have been an indelible central image, and still manages to produce an utterly bland tale.

Gold still does better than Sherman Alexie and Michael Crichton, who provide the only two truly awful pieces in the collection. Ironically, they are the ones who deliver most faithfully what Chabon asked: stories where something happens. The main problem with both (aside from their being badly written) is that the plot is all there is. It’s all very well and good to relate the adventures of cowboy zombies, as Alexie does, or matricide committed by an L.A. PI, as Crichton does (or tries to do. Crichton’s story verges on the unreadable), but they consist of nothing else. And if there is nothing else to a story; no nicely rendered description, no pertinent detail, no decent dialogue, no characterization, and no larger point (all of which I’ve yet to find in either) then who the fuck cares what happens anyway?

Only two of the authors actually relate truly thrilling tales. But there are quiet a few others with much to recommend them: Elmore Leonard’s strangely comforting story about the rise of a US Marshal, Nick Hornby’s poignantly optimistic take on the end of the world (Hornby’s choice of protagonist works wonders for what could have been a hackneyed concept), Harlan Ellison’s riff on the meaning of life, Michael Moorcock’s Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and Michael Chabon’s alternate history western. There’s also Dave Eggers, who provides exactly what Chabon railed against with such felicity that all of Chabon’s objections seem groundless. Anyone who has ever taken a long trip with the destination known but arrival uncertain and the goal ever-shifting will really appreciate what Eggers does with a jaunt up Kilimanjaro.

The two best stories are more than worth the price of the book. The narrator of Neil Gaiman’s piece, “Closing Time” maintains that it is not a ghost story. Perhaps. But there’s more than one way of making someone a ghost. Gaiman writes long, descriptive paragraphs with each word carefully chosen and perfectly situated. They are topped by killer short sentences which grab the reality he’s been crafting and twists it. Gaiman’s seemingly transparent, subtle style, works perfectly with his story’s understated horror. We know immediately, without Gaiman ever telling us, that the smokey club in which the tale begins is intrinsically good, and the edenic countryside which forms the mid-section has somehow gone horribly wrong. “The cages were big enough to hold a hunting dog, or a boy.”

Jim Shepard’s story, “Tedford and the Megalodon”, is all about ice, beauty, and monsters. Shepard knows that anyone who goes looking for a 65 foot shark is nothing but suicidal, and he wrings not romance but awe from the story of a man and his boat and the endless sea. Shepard’s story is suffused with a sense of the hugeness, the vast loneliness of the ocean, of which we really know so very little … and even less about what it might hide. Take a look, but be careful.


Archived article by Erica Stein