Literary Wanderlust, 166 pages, paperback, $9.99
David S. Atkinson is a master of the “off” story. His characters are not always outright bizarre, but every tale he spins will have some strange situation in it, some outré element that alters the narrative, or some unpredictable twist that affects the preceding story in a weird way. If you can imagine a straightforward literature filtered first through Kafka and then painted by a slightly subdued Hieronymus Bosch, you’ll begin to approximate what Atkinson does with short fiction. Not Quite So Stories is a collection of weird/surreal/funny/absurd/sad stories that keeps surprising the readers and that made me wonder what its author could do with a novel.
The collection kicks off with story about skydiving that puts the activity under an entirely new light and continues with a wide array of bizarre narratives, strange encounters, and wild situations that only share Atkinson’s elegantly bizarre prose as a cohesive element. Surprisingly, the strangeness is coupled with an emotional depth that helps the short stories leave a mark despite the fact that they are over so soon. For example, in “Domestic Ties,” an obsessively tidy woman receives a prisoner in her home and is supposed to keep him there for a while. While the man does nothing, Charlotte, the protagonist, becomes increasingly agitated at his inaction. The story builds to a finale that is at once surprising and inevitable.
In less capable hands, the tales in Not Quite So Stories would add up to a mixed bag of humor and literary weirdness. In Atkinson’s hands, the collection shows what those two things can accomplish when used in equal amounts. For example, “A Brief Account of the Great Toilet Paper War of 2012” is a hilarious narrative about exactly what the title says:
“No longer content to simply replace toilet paper rolls improperly, my wife actually began removing full rolls I had placed properly and setting them on top of the holder. When confronted, she laughed and claimed I was being paranoid. However, careful tracking of incoming toilet paper, outgoing empty rolls, and replacement rates proved that I was correct. Also, there was the fact that she occasionally performed her malfeasance while I was using the bathroom. That example was pretty difficult to refute.”
The surface of Not Quite So Stories is pure fun, but a celebration of the absurdity of everyday life is what makes up its heart. Atkinson knows that sometimes the best way to deliver a message is to hide it inside a joke or cover it with surreal craziness, and he does that repeatedly in this collection. For example, “60% Rayon and 40% Evil” uses an evil, homicidal teddy bear to explore desire and murder. Likewise, in “The Bricklayer’s Ambiguous Morality,” masculinity is scrutinized.
Between humor and absurdity, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that Atkinson is a talented storyteller and that he has great command of the short story format, which is no easy task. He has a literary flair, but he uses great economy of language and straightforward storytelling to keep the words flowing and the short narratives clear and effective. A great example of it, as well as of the strangeness that characterizes most of the pieces here, is the opening paragraph of “Dreams of Dead Grandpa”:
“Personally, I think it’s important for every boy to have a relationship with his grandfather. That sort of thing connects him to his past, lets him know how where he comes from joins to where he’s going. Give his life a bigger context, you know? Me and my dead grandpa have that sort of thing. I guess. At least, it’s more than we really connected while he was alive.”
Short story collections in which every story sticks with the reader are almost impossible to find, and Not Quite So Stories is no different. There are a few tales that don’t offer the same punch than those mentioned above, but the book weighs in at almost 170 pages and the stories are usually pretty short, so there is something for everyone. There is a lot of work being done in the space where literary fiction and bizarre/surreal literature meet, and anyone interested in that space should definitely pick this one up.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of Zero Saints, Gutmouth, Hungry Darkness, and a few other things no one will ever read. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.