#tobyreads: Two Collections, One Collected Life, and the Stopping of Time


It’s been another week where most of my reading has been taken up by books that’ll be covered in forthcoming reviews. What’s left? Two highly-regarded collections, and one exercise in taking familiar tropes and turning them towards experimental ends.

I’ve heard great things about Kevin Barry’s Dark Lies the Island. His novel City of Bohane has been on my to-read shelf for too long, and I’d planned to use this more recent collection as a way of getting myself up to speed with regards to his work. What I found was a series of stories about people trying to keep their worst impulses at bay — whether those impulses are depression, violence against others, or blackout drunkenness. Often, these can be extremely funny: Barry is able to capture the foibles of his characters without ever seeming condescending, and there’s a sense of empathy that extends to virtually all of his characters. This is a knowing sort of humor, when it’s present. The title story is one of the most effective renderings of depression I’ve seen in fiction in a while: Barry perfectly captures the way that coincidences can feel like augeries, and the way awareness of irrationality doesn’t always change one’s course of action. This collection covers the bulk of the emotional spectrum memorably and succinctly.

Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat also came highly recommended. Here, the stakes are different: many of Lee’s stories are set in academic locations, and several take the Cold War as their temporal setting. What Lee is after — and what Lee pulls off with skill and panache — is the way that group dynamics can evolve. The title story, set among a group of friends in their thirties, neatly encapsulates the divides that can spring up: the dynamics within couples, within groups of friends, and with the addition of children to the mix all create a fascinating emotional maze that all of her characters must navigate. Elsewhere, Lee runs her characters through the ethical gamut: one story centers around plagarism; another, a relationship where one of the participants may be secretly married. This is a book that zeroes in on a hazardous emotional terrain, and Lee creates a series of detailed worlds to extrapolate those spaces. (Though its title does, on occasion, make me imagine Owen Wilson as Eli Cash repeating it while he stares into the distance.)

Michael Seidlinger’s The Laughter of Strangers isn’t what it first appears to be. Basically, it starts out as a relatively straightforward novel of boxing, with an aging champion looking to take on a younger, fitter challenger. And slowly, things get weird: why, for one, do both boxers have the same name? What begins as an investigation of celebrity veers into weirder and weirder territory, eventually emerging as a meditation on identity that would fit nicely beside Morrison and Weston’s The Filth.

In comics-reading news, I picked up the first issue of Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s cheekily-but-accurately-named Sex Criminals as well. It’s about Suzie, a young woman working for a library, who has the power to, well, stop time during sex. I’d say hilarity ensues, but there are also plenty of sadder moments; it’s something of an emotional rollercoaster, even without the addition of the magic-realist element at the story’s core. Fraction’s dialogue and narration is crisp; the fragmented chronology works well; and Zdarsky’s art has an extra touch of grit than I’m used to from him, taking it slightly into David Lapham territory. I’ll definitely be coming back for future issues. (Also, I should throw in a recommendation here for Zdarsky’s unhinged, hilarious Zdarskyverse comics, which will make you never look at Pac-Man the same way again.)

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