reviewed by Paul J. Comeau | Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

City Lights Publishers, 172 pages, trade paperback, $15.95

Fiction writer, social critic, and founding editor of indie literary magazine Broken Pencil Hal Niedzviecki has done it all.  He has built his reputation on his ability to smartly skewer social conventions, picking apart aspects of our culture and revealing their absurdities.  In his latest book, Look Down, This Is Where It Must Have Happened, Niedzviecki turns again to fiction, with a collection of 13 short stories that are both topical and timely.  From terrorism to abortion, the subjects he grapples with are at the forefront of the public consciousness, as though ripped straight from today’s blog posts, Twitter feeds, and status updates.

While the themes in these stories are all very relevant and timely, this remains an uneven collection.  Niedzviecki’s sparse prose and minimalist use of punctuation make some of his stories vague and difficult to follow.  If these were prose poems meant to spark a mood or develop a certain sort of emotional response I think they would all succeed admirably.  As stories — with a recognizable beginning, middle, and end beyond the interesting premises upon which they are based — many of these stories fall short or don’t seem to go anywhere.

The second story of the collection, “Prenatal,” introduces pregnant teenager Charlie, who starts hearing the voice of the fetus inside her, telling her she should abort it and not ruin both their lives by becoming a teenage mother.  The premise of the story is interesting.  It explores the multi-faceted ethical debates surrounding abortion and issues of teen pregnancy, but leaves a number of narrative details vague or unresolved.  The story closes without any sort of climax or resolution to the various overlapping narrative strings, making the ending feel rushed or forced. Similar problems with unresolved plots and vague narrative details hold back a number of other stories in this collection.

Despite their stylistic annoyances, a few great stories do emerge from the barren prose.  The best by far is “The Colourist,” a multi-layered satire of the intersections between art and economics.  The colourist is an almost mythic figure, a cross between an Andy Warhol-like character and Alan Greenspan.  The colors he creates both decorate the world and power its economy.  As much as he is free as a creator, the colourist is also trapped within the economic system that surrounds him and his gift.  He falls ill, but cannot die, at least according to what’s been traditionally understood.  When the colourist — in truth an elderly blind man — escapes the confines of his apartment and wanders the city in search of a successor, what he finds is not what he seeks, but may be just the thing the government that controls him is looking for.

“The Useless” and “Sometime Next Sunrise” are two other excellent stories worthy of note.  “The Useless” is a story of what happens when a person’s livelihood, career, and their very life become useless to the society around them.  How do they go on living at that point?  “Sometime Next Sunrise” is a story of family, particularly a father and his adult son, overcoming differences and bonding while on a family vacation.  What they learn about each other may ultimately alter the relationships between them.

The strong stories in this collection are all exceptionally well done, but they are outnumbered by the lackluster stories surrounding them.  Fans of Broken Pencil or any of Niedzviecki’s other works will have a strong interest in picking up his latest effort, but others should sample a story or two before buying to know what they are getting into.