“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Book Review: Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives

Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives
By Brad Watson
W. W. Norton & Co.

Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives is a short story collection by U.S. writer Brad Watson. Although his stories display the polished, refined prose often associated with the style favoured by U.S. Creative Writing programs (Watson teaches creative writing at the University of Wyoming), his stories – thankfully – are nothing like the formulaic minimalism often produced by such institutions.
Consider the first story in the collection, entitled ‘Vacuum’: a woman, recently separated from her husband, puts down her vacuum cleaner and announces to her three boys that ‘ONE OF THESE DAYS I AM GOING TO WALK OUT OF THIS HOUSE AND NEVER COME BACK.’ The boys, suitably frightened, begin dreaming up ways to ensure their mother will stay. Most minimalist stories would stop here, but, for Watson, this is only the beginning. We quickly encounter an eccentric, retired Doctor with an alcoholic wife, the return of the boys’ father and a BB gun shootout. Here, the seemingly minimalist framework is referenced only to be contravened by a far more interesting – and open – narrative structure.
All of Watson stories work this way – just when you think you have them figured out, they veer off in unexpected directions. The story ‘Terrible Argument’, which is about a passionate and violent marriage, unexpectedly receives its dénouement through the perspective of their family dog (N.B. In today’s broadcast I incorrectly defined dénouement as the climax of a story. As one fastidious caller pointed out, a dénouement is, of course, actually the moment just after a story’s climax, as is the case here). In ‘Are you Mister Lonelee?’ we spend half the story sympathising with a character whose wife recently died, before we find out that she is alive and has simply left him.
Watson’s writing, of course, is not sui generis; many of his stories are set in the southern U.S. and recall many of the 20th Century’s great southern authors (Carson McCullers, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor are all obviously influences, here), but for all the polish and precision of his prose, they succeed precisely because they don’t resolve into perfect little gems like so much ‘academic’ (or would it be better to call it ‘institutionalised’?) creative writing. Watson’s stories open onto larger issues, and wilfully refuse facile narrative closure. ‘Fallen Nellie’ opens with the description of a murdered woman’s body; while we learn the sad history of her life, one minor detail is excluded: how she was murdered and who is responsible.
This collection, however, is not for the faint of heart. Watson’s is an uncompromisingly bleak vision, and the characters in his stories are, almost without exception, completely miserable (even worse, most of his narrators have come to realise that they have no-one but themselves to blame for their misery). Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives is filled with traumatic events (often described in detail), but these events are related without any trace of sentimentality. They are simultaneously painful and absolutely engrossing.
Simply put, this is the best collection of short stories that I’ve read all year, and anyone with even a passing interest in the form should seek it out. This phenomenal collection masterfully weaves together a stark beauty, a macabre sense of humour and the delicate evocation of human suffering. Watson’s stories aren’t likely to end happily, but they do run through the full gamut of human emotions, which is what great art is supposed to do, after all.

 This review initially aired on Triple R's Breakfasters.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice review, Emmett. I'll have to track down this book.

The past year seems to have been a strong one for US short fiction collections - do you agree? I'm having trouble keeping up with them all.

And thanks for clarifying dénouement for us all. It seems to be a popular word at the moment, if only for its classic mixture of french sound and confusing meaning.

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