Thursday, January 18, 2007

With a bang and a crunch

That's what a short story's supposed to do, I think. Bang. Crunch.

And short stories are poignant — at least the one's that register on my radar.

Neil Smith is a Random House New Face of Fiction for 2007 (the honour last year was bestowed on Ami McKay, The Birth House). His debut volume, Bang Crunch, collects 9 stories, all of them poignant — not wipe-a-tear,-aww poignant, but hollow punched-gut poignant.

My bias: I'm generally not a big fan of short stories. I like them well enough when I come across them in magazines, but I don't often search out volumes of them of my own accord. What jumped out at me about this book's description was the originality of the scenarios and that several of them seemed to touch on science and medical conditions, so I accepted a review copy.

Here are stories about the aftermath of a school shooting, a store detective and a pair of gloves, a support group for people with benign tumours, a young man who's a model for his artist father, an experimental play in a mentored drama group. They are "an exploration of the human need for connection, however tenuous or absurd, and at whatever cost."

The title story is about a girl with Fred Hoyle syndrome (a fictitious condition, to the best that I can determine), in which the aging process is speeded up and then reverses:

After your guests blow their noses into the hankies that your mum embroiders with the show's name, Through the Ages, they usually apologize for their tears and the blue lady, her skin a denim colour from ingesting colloidal silver, wonders how she can cry when you, Eepie Carpetrod, won't live much beyond your tenth birthday. Your mum argues you're eternal, that your mind and soul will expand forever like the universe, an allusion to the Big Bang theory, which you explained to her over lunch, tomato soup and saltines, but you know what your death will be, your brain collapsing under its own weight, the Big Crunch.


The pace is frenetic, to match Eepie's experience of life, and the second-person narration is weirdly effective in its matter-of-factness (you know, you live, you die).

Of the 9 stories, one I didn't like much at all (too many characters, too fast) and another I thought weak for its first-person narration. On of my favourites ("Jaybird") is also the longest, by a long-shot, at 66 pages, playing to my preference for the meatiness of character you find in novels.

From what I can tell — several of the stories having been previously published in various venues and Smith himself talking about some of them being written after the volume was contracted for publication — the stories were not conceived as a collection. They are not tied together by place or character (though a couple are) or theme.

There are a few common traits though: I'd guess that Smith's interest in science and medicine is a little stronger than your average Joe's, and that Freud might have something to say about his relationship with his mother (mothers are embarrassing, overbearing, absent, or useless — the attitude balances out over the volume, but there were enough negative references for me to notice and wonder).

What they do all have in common is that they're quite depressing. They don't offer much hope beyond a sense of "it's all right," which is, well, all right. Probably better not to devour them in one sitting though, but one at a time, slow but sure, for their full bang crunch.

I look forward to seeing what Smith can do in a novel.

Excerpt: "Isolettes."

Also: "Scrapbook," in Maisonneuve (September 2004) (full access for print subscribers only).

Interview.

Neil Smith will be reading from Bang Crunch on January 30 at Paragraphe Books in Montreal. (I'm going to try to be there.)
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