[Penguin; 2011]

by Annie Strother

In the first story of Ben Loory’s debut collection, a woman buys a book, takes it home, and is dismayed to learn that it is filled with empty pages.  When she comes across a man reading the same book on the metro, her indignation grows.  After she protests that he can’t possibly read a blank book, he defends himself:  “You can pretend, he says.  There’s no law against pretending.”

Along with pretending, reference and imagination are inherent to these stories. They are fairy tales, ghost stories, parables and fables, flash fiction forms most often associated with children and with reading aloud.  The readers’ awareness with the formulas that define these kinds of stories amplifies what’s on the page– which is slender by design. The description is spare, most characters go unnamed, and there is little, if any, exposition of the situations and people that give rise to the action.  The point is not to know the characters with intimacy, or to probe contextual evidence for what they do. These people are driven by basic human desires that run through Ovid and campfire tales alike:  physical needs like shelter; that most rewarding and damning trait, curiosity.

And the images that emerge and recede throughout this book are curious indeed.  In one story, two friends throw knives at one another for fun.  An octopus builds a reclusive existence for himself in a major city.  Sweethearts take off for the heavens in UFOs, religious fervor swells around a pig statue that moves unexpectedly one night, and monsters dwell at the bottom of local swimming pools.  The quieter pieces focus on mysterious shifts that are more familiar.  A man awakens after an accident with an altered understanding of himself and the world.  A second man writes a poem, becomes famous, and decides not to write another.  Many close as their protagonists set off, alone, into an isolating landscape.

The stories are separated into three sections. The first is devoted, for the most part, to variations on familiar adages:  look before you leap, don’t judge a book by its cover, you can’t outrun your death, never give up.  These stories are generally tidy, which can be to their detriment.  Loory ventures into stranger territory in the second and third sections, and this is where he hits his stride.  A man photographs parts of his body compulsively, pins them on the wall, and becomes alarmed when his own physique begins to change.  A group of men go hunting for sea monsters and lose one of their party in an accident.  When they return to land they find him alive and well, though he denies ever leaving with the group.  As a result, they persecute him.  Surreal narratives are broken into short sections of brief paragraphs, drawing attention to key developments while giving them breathing room.  Written in the present tense, each section refers to the other but sits in a separate place on the page.  As the action progresses, the form questions the causes and effects at work; these events may be linear, but who is to say why all of this is happening anyway?  And while some stories are so open ended that they fail to convey a strong sense of mood (and answers about what is happening that are important to keeping the reader on board), others conclude with evocative uncertainty.

Television programming has its own sinister magic in this collection. The narratives themselves owe much to the Twilight Zone, which spun black and white parables about the contemporary world around flat characters, unexplained events, and constant reminders that the world is dangerous and unpredictable, that outside every well-lit living room was a street obscured by the night, and beyond the curve of the earth, an infinite amount of space.

Those television fantasies owe much of their strength to the right amount of familiarity and this book tries to follow suit.  The juxtaposition of the banal and the freakish helps the stories to stand up and show themselves with vivid horror and humor alike.  When a boy climbs up a tunnel toward an unknown end, he finally comes upon a room with a bed, where his friend is lying.  Here, Loory takes the opportunity to turn his lens on the boy, who is

“…trailing leaves and rocks and oily tracks, and a crooked smile cracks his face.

“Please don’t scream, he says.

“But his friend in the bed doesn’t obey.  His mouth opens wide and he screams.

“So the boy reaches out with one gnarled, twisted claw.

“Together, the two boys reach the end.”

The moment slows down and congeals around deliciously nasty imagery.  And despite its simplicity, the presumption of the scream and the gravity of the word “obey” indicate that something else has occurred; the young boy’s transformation is not just physical.

It isn’t all gloomy, either. When the boy-monster asks his friend not to scream and he promptly does, it’s funny.  Of course the boy will scream.  We’ve seen monster movies before, and Loory knows it.  He scatters these stories with cliche phrases and spins them to comic effect.  In a labyrinthian tour of a basement that would confuse M.C. Escher, a woman falls asleep leaning against a wall and wakes up in a strange bed only to ask herself, “Why does this always happen?”

But the experiment can also come off as twee.  One man who has lost his wife shouts at the sky, “It was worth it just to know you!  It was worth it just to even know your name!”  Like the many characters who puzzle aloud during fairy tales for pacing, these men and women wonder in classic, but ponderous, befuddlement.  “Hmms” abound.  Characters “think and think” and “laugh and laugh and laugh.”  Other stories are very, very cute. (For many of us, it is difficult to read a collection of fables cover to cover.  And I imagine it’s even more difficult to write them well.  The stories resemble one another closely in structure and the cadence of the short sentences, elegant on the outset, begins to seem repetitious.)

There are electric moments in the collection though, and its tour-de-force is at the end, a short story titled, appropriately, “The TV.”  This is a longer piece that isn’t mimicking bedtime stories, a wild mix of man-in-the-suit boredom, psychedelic and out-of-body experiences, and cacophonous television imagery.  An unnamed man stays home from work and, shuffling through the channels, comes across a show about himself.  As his obsession with the programming grows, his televised persona takes on a bold, separate identity.  There are droll moments, but the story is good and frightening, a rich portrait of the simultaneous catharsis and anxiety of a man realizing the limits of his own control.  I finished it, shivered, and read it again.