by Tania Hershman
Roy Kesey's collection made me happy. Re-reading it soon after made me
even happier. This is not because Kesey's stories are hopeful or
optimistic. It is because this is a writer so clearly in love with
language and rhythm that it is a delight to experience what he does
with words – both those we are familiar with and those I
suspect he invented.
19 stories range in length from one to ten pages. Several were
previously published in literary magazines such as McSweeney's and Opium,
publications with a reputation for clever, sharp, irreverent writing.
While Kesey's work does fit this description, this is not cleverness
for the sake of it. In almost all the stories, even those that on the
surface appear utterly absurd, he is unearthing the complexities of our
world, the messes we make of it, and the small moments of joy.
This is no easy
book; Kesey's reader is required to work hard. He strips down to the
essentials; there are few names or places here, anything that might
anchor us. There
several stories that, however hard I worked at them, I couldn't squeeze
any meaning from at all. This doesn't mean I didn't enjoy the wordplay
and the flow of language, I just had no idea what I was supposed to
understand here. But the
struggle to make sense of the worlds he has created is
well worth the effort, though, because most of the stories give and
giving on each subsequent reading.
I found very moving, what we presume is a fertility doctor or
gynaecologist is describing to an unidentified
listener the collage of pictures he creates for each and every birth.
As he talks about each picture, we slowly realise all is not what it
seems. This “collage” contains images not only of
the couple about to give birth, their first child, the wife's mother ,
but “the gas station attendant who is friendly and
serviceable and pretends not to notice the wife's screams”,
“the taxi driver scrubbing the back seat of his
taxi”, “the aneastheologist, resting for a moment
in the break room, imagining new sorts of pain”.
Wait begins as
the ordinary story of a flight delayed due to fog. The omniscient
narrator pans across the departure lounge, dipping in and out of
passengers' thoughts. The language throws out clues that here, too, we
are not in reality is we know it: “Airline personnel daydream
of islands, and speak urgently into handheld radios though this is only
for show: the batteries have been on backorder for years”. As
the hours pass, disasters accumulate, the passengers form alliances and
organize distractions, until the entire situation crumbles.
often begin with some semblance of order and then descend into chaos,
but the endings are by no means uniformly hopeless: they manage to
satisfy while also, in many cases, being suprising or shocking. Kesey's
characters sometimes get what they want, but not in the way they - or
we - may have predicted. There is an allusion to war or some
other, larger event in many of the stories, as if to remind reader and
protagonists alike that, although we may imagine we are in control,
there is always something greater than us.
first release from Dzanc Books, a non-profit small press whose stated
aim is to “to advance great writing and champion those
writers who don't fit neatly into the marketing niches of for-profit
presses”. With this book, they have set themselves a high
standard. This is an astonishing debut collection by a writer who
deftly uses language, rendering it both spare and rich, sentences and
paragraphs reverberating long after the book has been put down. Kesey's
keen eye slices through pretence and artifice and although we
may not always comprehend his writings on the surface, in our bones we
know what he writes are truths.
Hershman is the
editor of the Short Review. Her first
collection, The White Road and Other Stories,
been published by Salt Modern Fiction.
Kesey was born and raised in northern California, and
currently lives in Beijing with his wife and children. His fiction and
creative nonfiction have appeared in more than fifty magazines and
anthologies, including McSweeney's,
The Kenyon Review, The Georgia Review, Other Voices, Quarterly West,
Maisonneuve, the Robert Olen Butler Prize Anthology and New Sudden Fiction.
His dispatches from China appear regularly on the McSweeney's
website, and his “Little-known Corners” meta-column
appears monthly in That's
an interview with
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