The Enemy by Isaac Bashevis Singer (Dark Forces) Vs. While Sleeping by Antonio Fian (Best European Fiction 2010)
The Enemy: Editor Kirby McCauley got Isaac Bashevis Singer to contribute to a grisly horror anthology! Well done. The narrator bumps into an old friend, who tells the tale of his shipboard battle against a sadistic waiter. A paranoid nightmare of refugee survivor guilt ensues. As dark as this might sound, Singer's celebrated yarnspinning style keeps the tone mercifully light; he's too confident a storyteller to burden the reader unduly. It's also rather distanced: it's all told from the frame story of a conversation between friends. The frame story, with two friends explaining themselves to each other, seems to be at least as important to Singer as the story within the story.
While Sleeping: Imagine Donald Barthelme and Franz Kafka trying to make each other laugh, but they're both really sleepy and neither is even close to top form. Vignettes where things go horribly wrong, but people manage to contrive some absurd sense from it all. The author's note states that the author wishes he were better known for his longer work, not for these bite-sized whimsies.
Compare/Contrast: Both stories involve startling and distressing turns of events that the protagonists manage, however provisionally, to fit into a big picture sense of rightness.
Verdict: As fond as I am of Kafka and Barthelme, I can't work up much enthusiasm for While Sleeping, though it amused on a first pass. The Enemy seemed richer on a second pass. The pointless persecution which the waiter visits on Singer's hero is never stable; the pointlessly cruel waiter might be a manifestation of the protagonist's unconcious, or of evil cultural forces like antisemitism. Dark Forces wins this round.
Dark Angel by Edward Bryant (DF) Vs. The Murderer by Peter Terrin (BEF 2010)
Dark Angel: a sociopathic modern witch revenges herself on a heel of an ex. The body-horror punchline gains a bit of resonance from the vexed portrayal of the protagonist's motivations: the ex really does deserve a comeuppance, but her supernatural payback may (or may not) be much too much, depending on one's point of view. This vexed portrayal of a vengeful woman shows her self-aware struggle against her own lack of compassion, but the prose style is flat, robbing the telling of savor. It reminds me of the moment in Our Town when the choir director chides the choir to remember that the Lord gave us music to bring folks pleasure. The Lord gave us prose for the same purpose. Bryant writes as though prose is a sorrowful obligation, but his tale could get a discussion group arguing the way Oleanna or Gone Girl did.
The Murderer. A man has murdered his neighbor. The story spirals out to reveal why and how, but also, slowly, reveals the sociopolitical environment that has made this event, and many more such, possible. Telling, specific details set this story on a much, much higher level than the thudding prose of Dark Angel. I haven't seen the Purge movies, but I suspect that someone involved in them might have read this story. As a North Carolina resident, where the socalled Bathroom Bill is a source of pride for our incurious dullard politicians, I'm delighted by this tale's dissection of how crapbrained lawmaking leading to social disfunction. So far, this is the best horror story I've read in this exercise. Catch up, Dark Forces.
The Crest of Thirty-Sixby Davis Grubb (DF) Vs. Zidane's Melancholy by Jean-Philippe Toussaint (BEF 2010)
The Crest of Thirty-Six: Now I reckon you've heard tell of the classic film Night of the Hunter, where that Robert Mitchum fella has "good" and "evil" written on his fingers; well, as sure as molasses goes with biscuits, this here Grubb's the very soul what wrote the novel it's based on, and here he's done written us a yarn about a nervous wharfmaster and the mysterious witch-woman he's married. She's one of those shifting, liminal magic ladies that fantasy fiction serves up from time to time, and I knows some women who delight in such characters, and others what deplores them. Way I see's it, tain't no place of mine to go mansplaining one way or t'other which way you oughtta regard the situation. Also, Grubb writes in a slick-magazine version of folksy talk, and can't nobody plumb the depths of my liking for such tomfoolery, but if you cain't hardly stand such things, you might do well to put plenty of land betwixt you and this here tale.
Zidane's Melancholy by Jean-Philippe Toussaint: A tightly-packed prose poem on a real world athlete's final game, in which he finished his career by injuring another player. Athletes and artists are compared, the mysteries of perception vis-a-vis sports spectators are engaged, and Poundian footnotes abound to explain all the inside baseball, as it were, around the World Cup. It's more of a dense, wintry essay than a traditional story.
Compare/Contrast: Crest is old-school satisfying yarnspinning. Zidane is a delicate consideration of an event through multiple distancing lenses.
Verdict: Read 'em both. If you read Zidane a second and third time for pleasure like I did despite not being a sports fan, HMU and we'll start a podcast.
Mark Ingestre: The Customer's Tale by Robert Aickman (DF) Vs. At the Sarajevo Market (BEF 2010) by Igor Stiks.
Mark Ingestre: The Customer's Tale: A young man in the Victorian era stumbles into the wrong Fleet Street barber shop, know what I'm sayin'? Although this story hails from the same era as Sondheim's magnificent musical on the same subject, it takes a different path: Sweeney Todd is a hypnotist rather than a throat slitter; the slide from Todd's customized chair to the basement happens with such mesmeric ambiguity that the unprepared reader will have no more understanding of what's just happened than the hapless customer; and Mrs Lovett is a slatternly seductress. A grotesque eroticism, no less troubling than the impending murder that our hero faces, demonstrates that great legends can be flexed in different directions. No "authoritative versions" are needed or desired; it's the rich malleability of tales like Todd's (though Todd is a minor player in this rendition, a mere gatekeeper to Mrs Lovett's lethal boudoir/kitchen/slaughterhouse) that makes them vital and enduring. Aickman's vivid depictions of settings and bodies, along with the formal yet pungent physicality of his prose, help to make this my favorite story in Dark Forces thus far.
At the Sarajevo Market: A couple visits a market in Sarajevo during its troubles in the 90s. The wares on offer have presumably been dug out of attics to raise some emergency capital, and the protagonists are mostly interested in what the merchandise reveals about the city's culture. Much bibliophiliac consideration of books for sale, and pondering of books' irrelevance to most people. Then the couples' attention turns to an antique engraved watch, as they imagine the fates of the lovers whose lives are suggested by this artifact. They give their speculative story a happy ending, but fail to bring such easy closure to their own teasing relationship, and we are left to speculate about their post-war fates just as they speculated about another unknown pair of lovers.
Compare/Contrast: The only connection I can make offhand between these very different tales is that both involve shifting and uncertain relationships in a context of broader uncertainty. Sarajevo's couple is never sure where their relationship, or the half-real, half-imagined relationship connected to an antique watch, are going, as war threatens everything and everyone they see. In Ingestre, a seduction disguises a maleviolent intent; a less subtle confusion, but if Ingestre had a Victorian smart phone handy he could update his relationship status to "It's complicated."
No, wait: both stories involve unreliable storytelling. Ingestre is an unreliable narrator for reasons that involve a frame story almost a century after the alleged encounter with Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd.
Verdict: Both are worth reading, but Ingestre's exploration of mesmeric gutter crime and lurid eroticism makes it essential.