When my publisher sent me a free copy of this year’s larger anthology for which my short didn’t quite make the cut, I have to admit that my pride smarted a little.
“Seriously though,” he said, “you might really enjoy reading some of these stories.”
I think his main point was that I needed to get off my intellectual butt and start reading and writing again as opposed to devolving into a caveman at the local gym. Balance has never been one of my finer points. I generally throw myself into an endeavor full force with little consideration for whatever exists outside of it. Travis reined me in, however. When I thanked him for this, his response was simply, “Of course. That’s why I’m your publisher.”
To a guy that once waited five years just to hear back from a major publisher… well, let’s just say you won’t find this kind of support and camaraderie just anywhere. So I took it for what it was and gave Irony of Survival a shot.
My publisher was right. There are some wonderful stories in this anthology, which I shall partially spoil in just a moment. There are also some lemons, but that’s to be expected when dealing with an anthology. After all, anthologies aren’t intended for just one demographic, so it’s inevitable that some works contained within will speak to you while others won’t.
Reading what a press selects for publication is also a useful strategy for determining what to submit in the future–this is a subjective business, after all. All established publishers include something to this effect on the company website, but most writers ignore it because we’d rather create first and find a publisher later. I mean, why sell out before it’s time to sell out, right?
Writers have interesting notions like artistic integrity and the preservation of our original visions. This makes us absolutely annoying to work with sometimes, but if we weren’t so passionate about these things, we probably wouldn’t be writers. It’s a Catch 22.
So I took this suggestion as a bit of investigative work. Then, as you typically do when you find something worth reading, I turned off the inner critic and enjoyed the stories.
Of Dogs and Vomit
I was initially thrown off by the title of Kevin Bennett’s dystopian short. It’s from Proverbs 26:11. (My Catholic upbringing was apparently wasted on me.) It’s probably a good thing the verse is included at the end of the story as an epigram as opposed to at the beginning as an epigraph, as knowing it gives away the plot.
Those of you that have the anthology in front of you just skipped to the end of this story, right? Figures.
That would be a mistake because where this story really shines is in its premise. Bennett creates a future in which slavery has been reintegrated into a future America via the abuse and subsequent dependence on a drug called “Sustain”. Essentially, the Company controls the production of the drug and thus uses it to control addicts that become dependent on it for survival. In an ironic juxtaposition with American history, the “slave hunter” in the story is Black, and the escaped slave is Caucasian. Both perspectives are included in each chapter, and the characters are given just about equal time as well.
The theme of abuse permeates the entirety of the work. Tom, the escaped slave, abuses both himself and the drug Sustain. The Company abuses both Tom and Enforcer Stack, who responds in kind by abusing both his subordinate and very authority he pretends to uphold. By the end, I felt sympathy for both dual protagonists, as Bennett does a fine job of drawing them together despite their differences and demonstrating that there are many forms of slavery. Or, to quote Eliot,
“We think of the key, each in his prison.
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison.”
-The Waste Land
Frances Pauli’s offering drew me in almost immediately. There’s something compelling about a mystery artifact found in a storage unit that probably should have been left undiscovered. I’m also biased because I’m a huge fan of Supernatural, and the writers of that show frequently play with occult objects wreaking havoc on the hapless mundanes that discover them. And sometimes, the protagonists.
Pauli’s story also touches on how our deepest desires–our very dreams–can lead us astray. Also present is the theme of simulation in a fantastic sense, which leads the reader to question just how important reality is when faced with our most intimate of temptations. “Catalogue Phantasma” made me wonder which dream I would chose given the conceit of the story. What conceit, you ask? Do you want me to spoil the whole thing, or what?
Despite the protagonist being female, I probably related to this story the most. It’s pretty darn universal.
Shall You Know Me When You See Me?
Allow me to speak plainly. Henry, the protagonist of this ghost story, is a jackass. I don’t relate well to characters that are having affairs and trying to justify/rationalize them. Cynthia is a real sweetheart and an interesting woman that deserved much, much better. She has Hester Prynne syndrome–the problem isn’t with her at all; it’s that no man in the story is actually a man.
You notice how my analysis just fell flat and I tried pathetically to cover it with a reference to The Scarlet Letter? That should let you know that this one disturbed me a bit. It’s a ghost story. I was disturbed. Johanna Lipford probably accomplished what she was going for here. But Cynthia, baby, if you’re out there somewhere, you can haunt me any time.
Time to buy more alphabetic refrigerator magnets…
I should probably do the dad thing and take my kids to the pool like I promised, but there’s plenty more “critical analysis” of Irony of Survival to come. If you’d care to pick up the anthology before I spoil it in its entirety (I do that sometimes!), you can find it on Amazon.com or follow this link.