Christian TeBordo‘s sometimes maddening, frequently ingenious, and always engaging collection of short stories hits the ground running with a tale of an aborted school shooting, swerves through a series of bizarre encounters among what can only be described as mentally disturbed individuals, and slams head-on into the first-person account of a young girl who’s fallen in with a gang of kidney thieves. To put it bluntly, TeBordo’s take on life — at least as reflected in this collection — is as grim and twisted as it is complex, hilarious, and mind-blowing. What’s more, what he offers isn’t simply schlock for the sake of schlock. Yes, there’s a boy in the bathtub, sans kidneys, encased in ice, and, yes, there’s a cache of guns in the backyard, but these images are couched in the context of the real-life horrors of contemporary society: there’s nothing in this book that hasn’t been on the evening news a few dozen times. The difference, of course, is that TeBordo uses fiction to try to make sense of it all, or at least to have fun (in a gallows-humor kind of way) trying.
To underscore the connection between TeBordo’s fiction and the horrors of our own broken world, the book’s design (by Zach Dodson of Bleached Whale, who does really wild and amazing stuff with book design) is perfectly suited to the tone and themes of TeBordo’s narratives. As the cover (pictured) suggests, we live in a poisoned world, a notion that Dodson develops throughout the collection by inserting a part-whimsical, part-horrifying picture postcard between each story. As with the book’s cover, the postcards depict oil-slicked landscapes and offer a series of odd missives between a pair of mismatched lovers: “There are so few uses for Crisco that to keep it in the house seems an unnecessary temptation,” explains a health teacher explains in one note. “I wanted to go home,” says a correspondent in a subsequent postcard; “The feeling didn’t pass until I had deflated our child so that it would fit in your bag.”
Bizarre? Yes. But in the best way possible. Indeed, I’d place The Awful Possibilities in my top three fiction collections for 2010, along with Don’t Smell the Floss by Matty Byloos and If You Lived Here, You’d Already Be Home by John Jodzio. Though not for everyone (and what is?), all three of these titles are perfect for anyone who loves to watch fiction push the boundaries of and between language and reality.
In Past Tense, author Nick Marsh deftly channels the ghosts of Douglas Adams and (to a lesser extent) Philip K. Dick to deliver a mind-bending tale of tunics and time-travel in which, needless to say, the fate of humanity hangs in the balance. The novel is the second in a series following Alan Reece, a veterinarian and part-time “conduit” to forces the rest of us have yet to understand. That Alan himself also has yet to understand these forces adds both to his own consternation and to the dry comic tone of Marsh’s writing. He’s an unwitting (if not unwilling) hero who finds himself drawn back to the days of the Roman Empire where he struggles both to adapt to the ways of the ancient world and to save the world as we know it from certain doom.
Throughout the narrative, Marsh displays his literary and pop-culture influences proudly. Fans of classic British Sci-Fi will certainly appreciate the ways in which Past Tense pays tribute to the 1965 Doctor Who serial “The Romans” as well as the novel’s multiple references to the cult series Red Dwarf. Likewise, the hero’s professed love for the work of Douglas Adams sends a clear signal regarding the novel’s pedigree. Yet even though references to other works abound, Past Tense stands on its own, and throughout the proceedings, Marsh proves himself a talented and inventive purveyor of imaginative fiction.
If I have one quibble with this book, it’s not with the writing but with the typesetting: the print is very small, ten- or possibly even nine-point Garamond. Of course, small presses need to do whatever they can to keep costs down, but when a book’s front matter and the ad on the back page are set in a larger typeface than the rest of the book, it’s probably a sign that the size of the print throughout should be larger. Overall, though, Past Tense is a fun read, especially for fans of Adams’ Dirk Gently series and Philip K. Dick’s Valis.
Jill DiGiovanni’s debut novel, Designs on Him, places the author on equal footing with such better-known commodities in the “chick lit” genre as Sophie Kinsella and Jennifer Weiner. The novel follows the efforts of thirty-year-old Noel Kingsley at maintaining a successful career in interior design while simultaneously trying to find that most-elusive yet ironically ever-present of the genre’s chimeras: the perfect man. What she finds instead is what makes this novel especially interesting and also what distinguishes it from others like it: a decidedly imperfect man.
Despite being attractive and confident, Jake Truman comes with his own share of baggage. For one thing, he’s twenty years Noel’s senior. For another, he’s not as forthcoming as he might be. The result is a novel in which a young female protagonist must learn to navigate not only the relationship between her personal and professional lives, but also the complications inherent in May-December relationships. To wit: Will Noel continue to stand on her own two feet and trust her own judgment, or will she succumb to accepting the received wisdom of the dashing older man whose designs on her are as fraught as her designs on him?
The plot and characters of DiGiovanni’s debut are, in some ways, reminiscent of those in works by Charlotte and Emily Bronte. (Indeed, I halfway suspect that the umlaut over the “e” in Noelle’s name, unreproducible here, is a subtle nod to the same in the Bronte’s surname.) Issues of wealth and class heighten the narrative’s stakes, while long-held family secrets add a sense of mystery and texture to the proceedings. To put it another way, DiGiovanni clearly understands the mechanics and subtleties of her chosen genre as well as she understands its history. The result is a curious and compelling cross between 19th century romance and Sex and the City.
Three years ago (almost to the day, give or take a week or so), I started this blog immediately after putting down Curtis Smith‘s collection of short stories, The Species Crown. The collection was so good — so thoroughly enjoyable and moving — that it turned me not only into a fan of Smith’s work, but a fan of the small press movement in general. Since then, various small presses have put out two novels by Smith (Sound + Noise and Truth or Something Like It, both from Casperian Press), another short story collection (Bad Monkey from Press 53), and now Witness, a collection of essays from Sunny Outside. The phrase hardest working man in bookbiz comes to mind.
Witness finds Smith exploring many of the themes that make his fiction both so endearing and so real. It turns out that Smith — like many of his characters — is a dedicated family man and educator. His essays touch on work, fatherhood, tattoos, art, literature, music, life, death, and everything in between. Through it all, Smith proves his talent for finding epiphanies in the quotidian details of daily life: the promise of adventure inherent in the smile of his young son’s toy giraffe, the squandered potential of an errant student as signified by the empty chair where he used to sit, intimations of mortality in the warm sanctuary of an ATM kiosk on a wintry day.
Perhaps it’s the fact that Smith is both an educator and an author that makes his writing so good. In a piece titled “The Borders of Diane Arbus,” he notes that although he’s far from perfect as an educator, it’s his imperfections that compel him to keep working at his craft: “Twenty-five years, and I still make mistakes, failing to decipher the hints laid before me. Despite my daily stumbles, I don’t divert my eyes, knowing a signal may wait in the next furrowed eyebrow or curled lip.” What becomes clear throughout the collection is that Smith’s constant attention to detail applies to reading not just his students but the world at large.
A moving and insightful collection, Witness does a wonderful job of shedding light on the miracles that occur daily in our imperfect world.
Just a quick note to readers in the Philadelphia area: The Painted Bride Art Center will be hosting a reading of Debra Leigh Scott‘s Purple Girl on November 10 at 7 PM. Scott has been involved in the Philadelphia arts scene for years, and she’s the founder of Hidden River Publishing. Purple Girl follows the exploits of an up-and-coming lawyer who must decide between revealing the truth about a multinational chemical corporation and advancing her career. To put it another (and perhaps less accurate) way, it’s a cross between Erin Brokovich and the Simpsons episode in which Homer meets his long-lost mother. More information on this and all Painted Bride events at paintedbride.org.