Published: August 25th 2015 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Genre(s): Literary Fiction, Surrealism Format: Audiobook Length: 9 hrs and 17 mins
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is a catalog of the mundane made nightmarish and surreal. Eating an orange is a visceral act of destruction and consumption. Applying makeup is an absolute negation of the self.
Sex is dissociative and alien, a study of individual body parts joining and separating in feverish dispassion. Commercials are bizarre tragedies populated with gruesome cartoon imagery.
Your favorite game show ruins lives and breaks up marriages. The neighbors dressed themselves in bed sheets with holes for their eyes and checked out of society to join a new cult. Your roommate wants to become you so thoroughly that you might no longer exist.
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is a bit difficult to summarize in any kind of concise fashion, but the back copy certainly tries. The main thing you need to know before reading it is that it isn’t particularly plot-driven and the characters aren’t much more than archetypes.
The first three-fourths are an episodic, anxious meditation on body image, consumerism and food issues. The last quarter changes gears a bit when the main character decides she has found a solution to her general malaise, and the book loses a bit of its odd, surrealist charm. That last quarter also suffers from a sudden influx of jargon, but the end still mostly sticks the landing.
My favorite parts were Kleeman’s descriptions of terrifying commercials for a chemical-filled brand of snack cakes. Imagine an existentialist Wile E Coyote who doesn’t just fall but breaks at a spiritual level thanks to the machinations of sentient dessert, and you’ve got the general idea.
I also appreciated the author’s horrifying descriptions of food and eating even as they made me cringe. Eating is basically never pleasurable in this book; instead, it’s an act of violence against both food and eater.
I’m honestly not entirely sure why I enjoyed this book as much as I did. I’m not usually patient enough to read weird, arty books, and it was definitely a bit pretentious and overwritten. It’s possible that listening to the audiobook was a big part of why I liked it; in fact, I’m pretty sure I would have gotten bogged down trying to read it in print.
Accordingly, I’d rate this one as a qualified recommendation. If a rambling, slim story about body image and food issues sounds like it might be worth your time, you’ll probably get a few laughs and/or shudders out of Kleeman’s début.
Published: February 3rd, 2015 Publisher: Random House Genre(s): Short Stories, Slipstream, Fantasy, Surreal Format: Audiobook Length: 9 hrs and 57 mins
Kelly Link has a knack for expertly juxtaposing weirdness with the mundane, and it’s basically catnip for my reading soul. Get in Trouble is no different.
However, one thing I noticed as I read is that only a handful of these stories are terrifying, which is a change from the norm. Link never really writes flat-out horror, but she has a way with chilling details and building suspense.
Although her talent for disturbing atmosphere does still come into play, Link spends most of her energy creating real, lived-in characters that leap off the page. In many ways, Get in Trouble finds her in transition; it’s still odd and unsettling, but it’s also some of her most accessible work.
The audiobook version, narrated by a full cast, features both familiar and new voices, some of whom are better than others. Tara Sands, who reads Secret Identity, is probably my favorite of the bunch. Ish Klein, who reads The New Boyfriend, has a high-pitched voice and staccato delivery that actually adds to the strangeness of the story. The only narrator I had some trouble with is Susan Duerden, whose odd cadence and breathy voice was very distracting at first.
“The Summer People” read by Grace Blewer
Fran and her (alcoholic, absentee) father are caretakers for vacation summer homes. Most of the time this just involves cleaning up after out-of-towners, but sometimes Fran has to deal with a different and far more dangerous type of summer people. This story starts out slowly, but Link steadily builds the danger and weirdness until delivering a punch of an ending. My only complaint is that the audiobook narrator completely ignores Fran’s accent.
“I Can See Right Through You” read by Kirby Heyborne
The Demonlover, aging star of a massively popular supernatural romance, reconnects with his former co-star/girlfriend as she films a TV segment about mysterious disappearances at a nudist colony. This story actually manages to humanize a celebrity couple who bear a very strong resemblance to Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. That said, the story opens with a prologue that feels completely disconnected from the main plot, and the ending is both sudden and unexpectedly surreal. I enjoyed the middle, but I’m still not quite sure what to think about the rest of this story.
“Secret Identity” read by Tara Sands
Told in the form of a confession and an apology, this story relates the adventures of a sixteen-year-old girl who travels to a New York hotel to meet a man more than twice her age under false pretenses. When she arrives, she discovers that the hotel is hosting two conventions: one for dentists, and another for superheroes. Much to her dismay, everyone assumes she is there to audition as a sidekick. Easily my favorite story in the entire collection; the main character is sympathetic and relatable even when she does terrible things. I also loved how Link plays with the idea of “secret identity” throughout.
“Valley of the Girls” read by Robbie Daymond
Decadent rich kids fight and fuck and build pyramids to house all of their worldly goods while lookalikes called “faces” make public appearances in their names. This story felt a bit overstuffed – too many disconnected ideas and not quite enough character development. Either “faces” or the Egyptian aspects of the story would have been enough to carry it, but both together are a bit too much. Ultimately Link doesn’t spend very much time exploring the concept of “faces”, so it just ends up confusing things.
“Origin Story” read by Rebecca Lowman
A small-town waitress spends the night with her former boyfriend, a now-famous superhero, at a dilapidated Wizard of Oz theme park. They have sex and talk about life, slowly but surely revealing shared histories and the intimacies of a long friendship. As they speak, we get glimpses of the strange world around them, full of mutants and people with superpowers. This story was a little willfully confusing at first, but once I got into the world, I definitely enjoyed it.
“The Lesson” read by Cassandra Campbell
Tan and Harper decide to attend a wedding held on an island despite the fact that their surrogate, Naomi, is in danger of delivering their baby prematurely. This is definitely the most realistic story Link has ever published, but there are still a few quirky touches and moments of strangeness. I liked this story, but I spent the latter half waiting for supernatural occurrences that never arrived.
“The New Boyfriend” read by Ish Klein
Immy and Ainslie are best friends, but Immy kind of hates Ainslie for getting everything she’s ever wanted and more. Especially her “boyfriends”, which are actually lifelike robots entirely devoted to their owner. When Ainslie receives a new boyfriend for her birthday, Immy’s jealousy overwhelms her, and she takes drastic measures. This was probably my second-favorite story in the collection. The narrator’s flat affect and unreliability paired well with the creepy concept of a “ghost boyfriend” who might be possessed by a real ghost.
“Two Houses” read by Susan Duerden
Astronauts on a long-haul spaceship – the House of Mystery – tell ghost stories during one night of their years-long trip to Alpha Centauri. This story was a mix of sci-fi and the supernatural, and although it builds to a particularly creepy moment at the end, it mostly relies on atmosphere and not plot or character.
“Light” read by Kirsten Potter
This story is so full of strange details that it’s nearly impossible to summarize properly. An alcoholic woman with two shadows works security at a company caring for “sleepers” – people found randomly lying asleep on the ground. She visits pocket universes, sleeps with the occasional wolf-man, and fights with her troublesome twin brother, who sprung forth from her extra shadow. Although I did enjoy this story, the strangeness was at such a high level that it was kind of overwhelming at times.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley… and then I listened to the audiobook version on Scribd instead. It was worth it!
Published: February 24th, 2015 Publisher: Random House Audio Genre(s): Short Stories, Literary Fiction, Magical Realism, Surrealism Format: Audiobook Length: 4 hrs and 22 mins
The only thing I remember about Jonathan Lethem’s first collection of short stories is that he really liked abrupt endings. Lucky Alan is no different. Sometimes the endings work, and sometimes the stories just feel unfinished. That’s probably why this collection has so many one-star ratings – people assume that Lethem is trying to palm off his fragments on an unsuspecting public, and they react with vehemence.
Thing is, I think the one-star critics are being overly harsh. Yes, a few of these stories are duds, but the good ones far outweigh the misses, and it’s possible that Lucky Alan is Lethem’s strongest collection (although I’d have to re-read his earlier work for a definitive verdict). It definitely made me want to pick up his most recent few novels, and I haven’t been as interested in his work since he starting writing in a more exclusively literary vein.
Although I definitely recommend listening to the audiobook version of this collection – the narrators are all pretty great, even Lethem himself – all the stories (but one) are available online from their original publications.
“Lucky Alan” read by Mark Deakins
Very much about New York and the people who live there. An actor and a theatre director strike up a casual friendship, and one day the director tells a story about his fraught relationship with a neighbor. Subtle but great. All about small details and the way people perceive each other and themselves.
“The King of Sentences” read by David Wain
A couple is so obsessed with an author they call “The King of Sentences” that they travel to his hometown and stalk him until he appears at the local post office. The object of their affection responds with distaste but it doesn’t faze them in the least. Heightened and satirical but still entertaining – I could almost picture this as a sketch on Portlandia.
“Traveler Home” read by Mark Deakins
A man known only as Traveler survives a blizzard along with his dog, only to find a baby under odd circumstances. Lethem uses a stilted, affected style here that I found distracting. This out of all the stories felt the most like it was the first part of something unfinished.
“Procedure in Plain Air” read by Amy Landecker
A road crew digs a hole in a sidewalk outside a coffee shop and puts a prisoner inside. The only witness feels responsible for the nameless, voiceless prisoner and decides to keep watch. I think I liked the oddness of the situation more than the story itself, which felt lacking in incident.
“Their Back Pages” read by Isaac Butler
Characters from classic newspaper comic strips crash-land on an island and slowly but surely devolve. This is probably the most stylistically ambitious of the stories in this collection, alternating between descriptions of comic panels and more traditional narrative scenes. At first I wasn’t sure what to think of this story, but once I caught on to what was happening, I really enjoyed it.
“The Porn Critic” read by Bruce Wagner
A man writes reviews of porn tapes for his job, but it ends up interfering with both his reputation and his personal life. This felt a bit reminiscent of a Woody Allen story in some ways, although far more realistic than most of Allen’s fiction. Both this and the title story are very stylistically similar, and both feel like they are specifically about New York City.
“The Empty Room” read by Michael Goldstrom
A man designates one room in his house as the “empty room”, explaining to his family that they aren’t allowed to leave anything in the room once they finish using it. Over time, he ends up basically living in that room, away from his family. This story had a nice undercurrent of surrealism that helped bring home its more allegorical aspects. Additionally, although the ending is sudden, it works really well for the material.
“The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear” read by Jonathan Lethem
This story has one joke, really: that if a blog is like a house, a banned commenter is the rotting corpse left resting on the threshold. Once the joke becomes obvious, Lethem just keeps hammering it home. This is the only story in the collection that I’d consider an absolute dud.
“Pending Vegan” read by Mark Deakins
A man who has stopped taking his antidepressants goes to SeaWorld with his family despite his looming sense of disaster. For whatever reason, this story wasn’t particularly memorable. I didn’t dislike it, but it didn’t really hold my attention, either. The main character’s anxiety and endless worrying didn’t really add up to much in the end.
I’ve never been a huge fan of horror, but over the years I’ve gained an appreciation of scary stories. They aren’t necessarily the same thing, either. As I see it, horror is a genre with a few common tropes, one of which is that the story may or may not be scary. For example, I’ve never really thought that slasher movies were scary. They’re mostly just gratuitous. I’ve read a bunch of Stephen King, but few of his books are truly scary and most feel more like dark fantasy than outright horror. Evil Dead 2 isn’t particularly scary, either, but it’s definitely a horror classic.
Scary stories, on the other hand, can exist in almost any genre. I think a good author can wring a bit of terror out of something entirely realistic and/or mundane. However, it’s pretty rare that I read something that genuinely freaks me out. When it does, it’s the sort of thing that sticks with me forever, which is definitely something to strive towards as a writer. I’m certainly drawn to writing scary stories myself.
When I think of scary stories, one of the first that springs to mind is Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby, which tells the story of a man who discovers an African culling song in a children’s book. Unfortunately for him, he only discovers the song’s powers after he’s read it to his wife and child and accidentally killed them both. Then, of course, the song gets stuck in his head, and if he inadvertently thinks it at someone, they die. Needless to say, I found the concept of a deadly thought virus completely and utterly terrifying.
Next in line is Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, which is probably my most favorite of all his books. The funny thing about the book is that I’ve heard it tends to scare adults far more than children. Apparently a young girl exploring a frightening alternate universe full of terrible danger tends to freak out adults but sounds like an adventure to kids. Go figure! Gaiman skillfully uses surrealism and an omnipresent menacing atmosphere to keep the reader constantly off-kilter, and the tension just keeps building. Coraline isn’t the only work of Gaiman’s that I’ve found creepy and/or disturbing. Some of his short stories are particularly chilling as well.
I’d also argue that Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything fits in this category. The narrator, Evie, is a teenage girl in the 1980s whose best friend suddenly disappears one day. Was she abducted? Did she kill herself? Panic in the community builds as the disappearance drags on and on, and Evie takes it upon herself to investigate what happened. Part of what makes the book so terrifying are the uncomfortable parallels between Evie’s crush on an older man and the increasing likelihood that her friend was abducted by a pedophile. Nothing in the book is black and white, and even though it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, I hesitate to recommend it to anyone simply because it filled me with such a palpable feeling of uneasiness throughout.
I hope to someday tell a story that manages to convey the same sense of dread and uneasiness I felt when I read those books and others. Until then, I’ll continue on my quest to read truly frightening books wherever I may find them.
Published: February 12, 2008 Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Genre(s): Fiction, Slipstream Format: Hardcover Pages: 244
I was drawn to this collection of short stories by two things; first off, the cover is gorgeously designed, evoking both the period setting of many of the stories – the 1950s and 1960s – and the unsettling, off-kilter themes that resonate throughout the collection. Secondly, I’d heard of Millhauser’s story “Eisenheim the Illusionist“, which was adapted into a film that was unfairly compared to The Prestige because they were both period stories about magicians. I liked the movie enough that I wanted to know more about the author, although I’ve read that the story is very different from the movie.
It’s rare to find a truly consistent short story collection; in my experience, even the best authors swings and misses in this kind of collection. I read Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things earlier this year, and those stories alternated between gorgeous, disturbing, and incredibly slight. Dangerous Laughter has a few stories that I felt miss the mark, but by and large Millhauser’s collection is one of the strongest I’ve read in a long time. The stories alternate between macro-level narratives that read more like entries in a history book, and more personal stories that focus on specific characters. In general, my favorite stories fell in the latter category, but all of the stories in this volume have something to recommend them.
The first truly stunning one is “The Room in the Attic”, which tells the story of a young man who befriends a girl that lives in darkness. During his junior year at school, the narrator, David, befriends an odd, bookish new kid named Wolf. One day Wolf invites David over to his house and introduces him to his sister, Isabel, who lives in the attic room and keeps her lights turned off at all times. Wolf tells David that she is recovering from a nervous breakdown, but that she seems to like him, and David begins regularly visiting Isabel in her attic room.
They dance together in the dark, play games, and talk about anything and everything. Soon enough David is spending more and more time with Isabel, and can think of nothing else but his daily visit. Eventually the idea of Isabel looms in David’s mind, and her invisibility becomes an indelible part of her personality for him, until he is no longer sure he wants to see her face. I loved the way this story every-so-gently tweaked reality and played with symbolism; it manages to fill something seemingly mundane with incredible power.
The title story, “Dangerous Laughter”, also plays with something apparently normal that becomes twisted and strange. It focuses on one summer when a group of students start playing a game where they gather in secret and laugh as loud and long as they possibly can, until they are exhausted, spent. Eventually they form laughter salons, each with its own specialty, and the games start turning into a ritual.
The laughter salons seem both innocent and deeply, darkly personal; where other games like spin-the-bottle or seven minutes in heaven are naive or childish approaches to sexuality, the laughter games seem to tap into something more primal but similarly illicit. Things start getting even more intense when a formerly anti-social girl joins the laughter salons and starts laughing harder and longer than everyone else. This story perfectly captures the lyrical mysticism and strangeness inherent in those bygone teenage summers, and quickly became one of my most favorite in this collection.
Other stories in the collection deal with creativity (“In The Reign of Harad IV“), spirituality and belief (“The Tower”), identity (“The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman”), and more. Although at first they may seem gentle and understated, many of them are filled with a creeping tension or an impending sense of tragedy. Few of the stories wear their fantastic nature on their sleeves, but all of them are just a few steps to the left of reality, edging into more unsettling territory. More often than not, it was just enough to get me thoroughly hooked and keep me reading. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection, and look forward to reading more by Millhauser very soon.