Report on the Shadow Industry

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So against all logic I was recently working a Monday-Friday 9-5 sort of thing for a while. It involved lots of mind-numbing printer management, and a half-hour bus ride twice a day. In an effort to lessen the mind-numbness, I spent these trips reading.

Short stories work well for bus rides. If you’re lucky one will last the exact length from your house to Symond St (or wherever it is you work. I don’t know). During this last stint of gainful employment I worked my way through two books of them, Peter Carey’s Collected Stories and Michael Chabon’s Werewolves In Their Youth.

To compare these two books would be completely unfair. They are written by different authors, from different countries, at different times, about different things. The only things that bind them together are the fact that they are collections of short stories, and that I read them. However, if I’ve learnt anything from these books it is that life is unfair, and bad things can happen to well-meaning people (actually there’s another thing they have in common). So I’m going to compare them, just because I can.

Carey’s Collected Stories is a much weightier book, reprinting stories from two earlier collections along with a few new ones. Accordingly the age of the stories varies by a decade or two, and yet they all feel like they could have been written this year. The threat of war, social isolation, economic depression. A lot of them include magic-realist or (dare I say it) science-fiction aspects, but in ways that reflect or comment on real life rather than delve into escapism. The only story with spaceships in it also had flea-markets, that sort of thing. The situations his characters find themselves in are often as baffling to them as they are to us, and very few of these stories leave you feeling good. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s a testament to Carey’s skill as a writer that all these stories had their effect on me, all of them made me think and ponder and queasily look at the world we live in. In particular “Life & Death in the South Side Pavilion” and the opening “Do You Love Me?” were terrifying in their convincing bleakness. There’s a bunch of reviews out there that compare Carey to Franz Kafka, and although I haven’t read any of his stuff there’s enough people making that connection that it’s probably true. I had a read about Kafka on wikipedia and it seems to fit. Makes me want to read Kafka now.

Chabon’s stories are longer, in general, and there are fewer of them (nine, as opposed to Carey’s twenty-six). All of the stories are strong, and as stand-alone pieces any of them could compete with the best of Carey’s, and outdo many of his others. But these stories of Chabon’s suffer from being collected together – it’s as if the whole they make is less than the sum of its parts.
While Peter Carey’s repeated themes work together, cumulatively building some kind of cohesive, sinister menace, with Chabon it becomes a bit tedious – so wait, another story involving a failing marriage and/or divorce? Neat...
Werewolves in Their Youth sticks with real-life interaction rather than any fantastical elements, and that’s cool. The people are real, convincing, flawed. “Green’s Book” – a story about a divorcee (OMG really??) father and his young daughter visiting the girl he used to baby-sit and had inappropriate thoughts about that have haunted him all through his adulthood – stuck with me long after I read it. My favourite though (and this may well say more about me than about the stories) was “In The Black Mill”, a piece of genre fiction written in the style of a pulp horror and attributed to a fictional writer from one of Chabon’s novels. It was suspenseful and increasingly menacing, leading up to a satisfyingly horrific conclusion.

In his book Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction Kurt Vonnegut (who didn’t write either of these books, but is an idol of mine nonetheless) set out a list of rules for writing short stories. One of them was: “Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” And although rules are made to be broken, and these are probably more like guidelines really, and I have no idea if Carey and Chabon have even read Vonnegut or what they think of him, both of them have followed this particular rule to the letter. Likeable or not, awful things happen to these characters. We get to see what they are made of, and often they are found wanting. It makes me consider how I would fare in similar situations – charged with the duty of guarding a border alone in the desert, my wife pregnant with her rapist’s child, stranded in a drive-in movie theatre that increasingly resembles a refugee camp.

Often these stories don’t have a right and a wrong, a hero and a villain, a clearly defined question and answer. But how often does life? If you want something to think about on your way to work other than arriving at work, then either of these books will help you out. Just don’t read them in the evening before you try and get to sleep though.

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