The novella, “A Bright Tragic Thing” (Emily Dickinson, right?), at just over a hundred pages, is obviously intended to be the centerpiece of this collection. Unfortunately, it’s by no means the strongest story in the book. Ultimately it’s a tragic tale, but it is—or at least I think it’s supposed to be—more of a comedy for the first fifty or sixty pages. It’s actually quite a bit like an episode of The Office or Arrested Development, in the sense that the majority of the humour comes from paying excruciatingly close attention to the socially awkward. And excruciating is the word. The premise is a good one: misfit teenagers entertain themselves by collecting kitschy souvenirs autographed by obscure, washed-up celebrities, with hilarity and tragedy ensuing. It was just too much to stay with for so many pages. It wasn’t that I got bored by Dave and Todd manipulating Murray Mortenson for kicks (although I found the pseudo love triangle of Dave, Todd, and Helen far more interesting), it was more that I could see the end coming from a mile away, and I began to feel embarrassed for the characters and just wanted them to get all that suffering over with.
The shorter stories that make up the second half the book, “The Soother” and “The Virtual Tour” in particular, are much stronger. The opening sentences of “The Soother” had me thinking, with some dread I don’t mind telling you, that I had stumbled upon yet another of the “glories of motherhood” stories that I’ve read a thousand times before, but was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be about a much put-upon husband/father who also happens to be into paraphilic infantilism. I think this might be the most interesting (in an intellectual rather than erotic sense) and unusual sexual behaviour I’ve encountered in Canadian fiction, with the possible exception of that thing with the ribbon at the end of The Rebel Angels. The reasons I liked “The Virtual Tour” are too personal to get into here, but it was a good choice to close out the collection, as it left a strong positive impression.
“The Truth” was an interesting story about two people on a first date whose feints and deceptions and even social graces are stripped away, and they speak only in terms of the bitter truth. I feel like I’ve read it before, or a story very much like it, either in some other collection, or even in a creative writing class (in fact, I once wrote a story with a similar, but not identical, premise for one such class), but I haven’t read any of the journals and such where it was previously collected. I wasn’t shocked by anything the characters said, and there were few genuine revelations about relationships or the human spirit or contemporary dating, but it was fun to read, and like a lot of conceits, no matter how obvious they may seem, it’s important to encounter them in print at least once. Having said that, I think “Wonderful” revolves around the sort of conceit that didn’t need to be seen in print at all. It was a completely unremarkable inversion of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (I can’t say how it relates to Philip Van Doren Stern’s story, “The Greatest Gift,” as I’ve never read it), and I don’t think I ever needed to encounter such a thing. Another story like “The Soother” would have done me just fine.
Next up is The Killing Circle, by Andrew Pyper.