Quotidian Realism as Fairytale: A Review of Douglas Watson’s “The Era of Not Quite”


The Era of Not Quite: Stories
by Douglas Watson
BOA Editions; 148 p.

Douglas Watson’s The Era of Not Quite isn’t shy about its own literary nature. The opening stories contain mentions of the likes of Haldor Laxness and Samuel Beckett, though it’s another venerated writer whose legacy seems most felt in this collection. Halfway through the book is a story titled “Special Advertising Section.” It begins: “Well, here you are, halfway through Douglas Watson’s first and last book of stories.” Readers of Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler will note a familiar device — though Watson takes that device into a more elegaic direction.

That isn’t intended as a criticism of Watson’s often deftly-constructed stories. The influence of generations of metafiction is deeply felt in this collection, and if that does occasionally reveal a penchant for cleverness that can frustrate, there’s plenty in here to recommend. As the title might indicate, the subject of many of these stories is quotidian frustration or otherwise stifled lives, and Watson is at his best when channeling those all-too-mundane notions through a more surreal or stylized filter.

The title story concerns itself with a man named Hal and his unspoken, probably unrequited love for a librarian. Here, Watson takes a fairly mundane situation and couches it in archetypes; the result seems something like realist fiction of the 1960s retold as a fairy tale. It’s an unexpected combination — and one where the style leads the reader to expect it to veer towards stranger places. But for all of that, it works, as long as it’s used sparingly. “The Messenger Who Did Not Become a Hero” takes the opposite approach, beginning with archetypes but stranding them in a tale with decidedly modern concerns, from revolution to lengthy discussions of the favor notes of a particular cup of coffee.

Several of the stories in The Era of Not Quite — especially “Life on the Moon” and “The Fate of Mothers” — blend the surreal and a detached delivery together movingly, taking what reads like an aphorism and bending it back towards intimacy. Elsewhere, Watson’s ability to tinker with the known can yield more mixed results. “The Purest Note That Had Ever Been Sung,” for instance, begins as a kind of revisionist fairy tale, but ends with a bleak punchline.

Watson’s fiction displays a talent for condensed information, and a skill at blending formally known styles. As debut collections go, this one makes a good demonstration of the skills of its author. More impressive is the ways in which Watson makes his skills known, the unlikely ways in which certain aesthetics are blended and rethought. It’s a promising start, and a clear-headed debut.

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