The dark symbolism behind the title Sex and Death reminds me of a line from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, “Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps.” There’s a similar existential sense of “cradle to the grave” throughout Ben Tanzer’s new short story collection, and one overarching theme holds constant: each subject wrangles a hopeless sense of “what’s next and what if it’s all downhill from here?”
Many of these stories are about people trapped in transition between what they subconsciously view as the best times of their lives and the uncertain road ahead. Story titles hint at the aimless limbo one feels when standing at a crossroads: Dead or Alive, Drifting, Flight, and The Anatomy of an Affair. A few subjects grapple with the loss of a father, others contemplate affairs, and some panic about the looming responsibilities of building and supporting a family. Many reflect on their past, some with nostalgia, others questioning hope for a better future, but mostly, how to react responsibly, or at least without irreparably screwing life up for everyone.
This time, Tanzer changes up the demographics. No longer is the default a middle-aged white guy thinking about cheating on his wife. This time, we hear from a few young and impressionable boys, and a middle-aged female (although one does contemplate cheating). In Taking Flight, Tanzer explores her restlessness, loss of identity, and contemplation of an affair. The stream-of-consciousness writing evenly builds tension, and never rambles or drifts into emotional vomit.
“…you look across the dinner table at your husband, the husband you love but are not sure you still want, the husband who sometimes feels like a sibling or friend, which is fine in some ways, there’s no animosity or sadness, it isn’t even stale exactly, it’s just good, comfortable, the date nights, the movies, the trips to his family’s cabin and the brunches every Sunday, copies of the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times strewn across the table…and wondering what you, an older, married woman, might be willing to do under the right circumstances…and how could you ever do that to him, you couldn’t, you won’t allow yourself to, right, no, never, not. Facebook though is safe…”
This narrative also explores the complex aspect of social media, how a news feed can make everyone’s lives look perfect, and how there aren’t always friends on that “friend list,” but frenemies boasting about their beautiful families and celebrations, lives cropped of marital fights, familial tensions, and photo-shopped to perfection, because no one posts about misery, existential crises, or relationship drama (except maybe that one Debbie Downer acquaintance we all have, or those dominating the newsfeed by live-Tweeting political rants).
“…everyone seems so fucking happy, married to this person or that one, little hearts and hyperlinks everywhere. It’s infuriating. And just like high school, everyone has something you don’t, and yes they are happy to connect, but after that first exchange, nothing, it all fades, and though they update their status and leave wall messages for other mutual friends, they’re gone, moving on to new relationships, and new sets of photos, the promise of excitement and release, just one more click away.”
This story exhibits how technology has changed our interactions with one another, the expectations we’ve set for our own lives, injected us with the “fear of missing out,” and exposed us to a wide rage of temptations.
The collection still contains middle-aged married guys’ internal monologue that reads like a “choose your own cheating adventure, whether you act on it or not” book. These men feel smothered in their marriages, and they wonder if the best experiences and biggest thrills are buried in years passed. The tension and claustrophobic sense of being trapped between the good times and the next phase of their lives is often so intense, that these men sound as if they’re a breath away from totally losing it over something as simple as a heartfelt ad, like that one with Bowie playing in the background of the Audi Super Bowl commercial after the old man’s son comes over with his $300k car to give him the fleeting thrill of a test drive, reminding him of his golden age. In reality, this is something a son can only do if he isn’t a total fuck up, in jail, a pothead, or living in the basement mooching off his father’s 401k. Oh, and has the means to afford said $300k car.
All in all, Sex and Death illustrates that none of us are done “coming of age” just because we graduate high school or move out of our parents’ house. Life’s trials and errors (or failures) will continuously test our resilience, faith, and respect for others, but most of all, the respect we have for ourselves.
Disclaimer: you will get to the end of this appetizer-sized collection so much more, but when it comes to a prolific writer like Tanzer, rest assured many other courses will soon roll out of his literary kitchen.
Published in January 2016 by Sunnyoutside
Ben Tanzer: is the author of the books Orphans, which won the 24th Annual Midwest Book Award in Fantasy/SciFi/Horror/Paranormal and a Bronze medal in the Science Fiction category at the 2015 IPPY Awards, Lost in Space, which received the 2015 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose Nonfiction, The New York Stories and now SEX AND DEATH, among others. He has also contributed to Punk Planet, Clamor, and Men’s Health, serves as Senior Director, Acquisitions for Curbside Splendor, and can be found online at tanzerben.com the center of his vast lifestyle empire.
Lavinia Ludlow is a musician and writer dividing time between San Francisco and London. Her debut novel, alt.punk (2011), explored the ragged edge of art, society, and sanity, viciously skewering the politics of rebellion. Her sophomore novel, Single Stroke Seven (2016), explores the lives of independent artists coming of age in perilous economic conditions. Both titles can be purchased through Casperian Books. Her short works have been published in Pear Noir!, Curbside Splendor Semi-Annual Journal, and Nailed Magazine, and her small press reviews have appeared in The Rumpus, The Collagist, The Nervous Breakdown, Entropy Magazine, and American Book Review. Her work can be found here.