Upsetting the platitudes
by Keith Taylor
The short story, like any other art form, responds to fashion. The dominant fashion at the moment a certain genuine wittiness that exposes a gently bizarre character often at swim in a sea of commodities has temporarily marginalized both traditional stories heavy on character development and the riskier stories of the truly bizarre. Luckily, interesting and smart new writers like Andy Mozina, who clearly understands his moment in literary history, aren't overwhelmed by fashion and keep trying to find ways of telling their own stories.
In his first collection, The Women Were Leaving the Men, he ranges from deeply bizarre characters to those who were almost recognizable on my street this morning. "The Enormous Hand" is a Kafkaesque tale of a man born with one very large hand, so large in fact that it becomes an all-purpose device for perfect housecleaning. Bill's defect becomes almost heroic. But Bill's neighbors turn against him because of his deformity, and the jokes and punning turn toward the horrible before turning back toward a gentle eroticism. The story is an imaginative tour de force.
There are other moments and characters in The Women Were Leaving the Men that amaze with their powers of invention obsessive-compulsive cowboys, a foot fetishist, a former astronaut who comes back home to take care of his mom but the final story, "Admit," is another small gem in which Mozina seems to have found an exquisite balance between the way of telling and the story told. David in "Admit" is a troubled first-year law student at Harvard who really wants to be a stand-up comic.
The trouble is that his jokes really aren't very funny. He has a girlfriend who is about ready to dump him because he's too self absorbed, in addition to being a lousy lover. After dropping out of law school, he tries one last gig:
| . . . I talked about how I |
was a law school dropout, pretty much an unmitigated failure at life. The laughs dwindled as I went on beating myself up, turning comedy into something else. At one point I ad-libbed, "I've got shit for brains, have you noticed that?" and the audience just dead-eyed me.
Then a waitress dumped half a hutch of glassware on the floor.
I said, "Ah, what a relief." But nobody got it. Heads turned to view the mess.
A heckler yelled, "Hey, at least you're not the only one getting fired tonight."
This is, of course, terribly sad. But it is also funny, and the reader feels slightly complicit in David's pathologies by enjoying the abyss of his self-deprecation. By the end of the story, Mozina turns all the platitudes on their heads.
Andy Mozina reads from his short stories at Shaman Drum Bookshop on Wednesday, September 26.
[Review published September 2007]