Trabuco Road, November 2006

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“Sound and Furie” by Edward Morris
“The Word of God” by Nir Yaniv (translated by Lavie Tidhar)
No doubt many survivors of the Cold War have long since grown weary of post-apocalyptic fiction.  These days, popular (secular) portrayals of the end of the world tend to depict massive natural disasters, but visions of nuclear terracide continue to capture the imaginations of some readers and editors.  Can such short stories really add anything to the long-form canon bookended by On the Beach by Nevil Shute and A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller or the cinematic nightmares of the 1980s?

The grim future portrayed in “Sound and Furie” by Edward Morris certainly isn’t your typical post-apocalyptic dystopia.  Some of the lights are still on.  People live with radiation poisoning for decades, and horribly malformed mutants hold down steady jobs.  “The Feds” are still in charge, at least to some degree.  And in the middle of a ruined Portland landscape, there’s a service garage for motorized bikes, including futuristic “choppers.”  Actually, it’s more of a tent.

The protagonist, Bezoomny, is a mentally-impaired “mutie” who occasionally works at the bike shop.  He may be an idiot savant—he uses words like “octoped” and “hexomethaphetamine,” after all—but it’s hard to tell from the barely coherent first-person narration that opens the story.  His brother, however, was a mechanical genius before he succumbed to drug addiction.  He’s the one who built Furie, the bike Bezoomny rides.

Alas, Furie is broken.  Bezoomny has been waiting for other technicians at the shop to fix it, but they’re always running behind schedule, and the crazy old man who runs the place just rails at him when he presses the matter.  He doubts that the technicians will bother to touch such a hunk of junk, anyway.  He decides to take Furie back and try to fix it himself.

The futuristic setting soon fades into a mere backdrop, leaving this rather weak opening premise to develop at an uneven pace.  Truthfully, it is the story’s organization and often stream-of-consciousness style that the author is banking on here.  It is written to appeal to fans of William Faulkner, particularly his experimental work The Sound and the Fury.  (Bezoomny’s name may even derive from that of Faulkner’s mentally handicapped narrator, Benjy.)  This novel is a famously excruciating read, so if Faulkner was the bane of your collegiate existence, you probably would not enjoy this story—unless you never miss an episode of American Chopper.  It’s a difficult piece to take at face value.

The story is strongest at its climax, which delivers a poignant retrospective of all that has been lost since the nuclear exchange.  The mundane trappings of our everyday lives suddenly become beautiful, even heavenly.  It’s an unexpected change of perspective, both within the tale and without, and Bezoomny’s simple point of view is highly effective here.

The story ends with a monologue by the bike shop owner, who is barely present in any of the earlier scenes.  He clears up some of the story’s confusing details and offers some welcome hope.  That being said, the ending provides little narrative closure.

The theme of loss is also central to William Bolen’s “Harris Valley Reclamation,” a wistful ghost story in which places and objects do most of the haunting.  The narrator, a dying man, recalls his work as a surveyor in the days leading up to the opening of the Harris Lake Dam.  He and his partner, Frank—the story’s true protagonist—were responsible for evicting residents from the adjacent valley before it was flooded.  During a drive one day, they encounter an old filling station they could swear had not been there before.  But Frank recognizes it—from his childhood.  They inspect the premises, and afterward, the narrator watches as Frank’s rigid strength buckles under the weight of his past, with all its tragedy and regret.

This is a beautifully written story, definitely worthy of the label “literary.”  Occasionally, a metaphor does fall flat—the narrator describes cancer cells “flitting about” inside his body—and some redundant vocabulary may distract attentive readers.  Usually, though, the author strikes just the right note, engendering a symphony of evocative visuals in a minor key.

Unfortunately, the plot drags somewhat under the weight of the prose, and it takes too long to reach the mysterious filling station.  After this, the tone turns maudlin, almost melodramatic, as Frank recounts his painful memories to the narrator.  Some of the poignant details are tangibly real, but on the whole, it’s almost like watching a Shakespearean tragedy where you know that all the principals will be dead by the end of Act V.  The intensity of Frank’s recollections seems slightly forced, and this overload may distance some readers from the story.

No matter how grueling the lead-in, the climax of this piece delivers one moment of perfect beauty that in itself makes this story worth reading.  In that instant, the narrator, still a passive observer, glimpses the ultimate outcome of his friend’s emotional struggle.  In a single paragraph, the author deftly releases all of the story’s dramatic tension, like water gushing through a newly-opened dam.  The result may open the floodgates of readers’ tear ducts as well.

Frank’s story is strong enough without the framing of a dying man musing over the distant past.  The first and last scenes, set in the present day, weaken the story’s pacing and overextend the denouement.  Despite some gorgeous imagery and emotive touches, this approach produces a cake with just a little too much icing.

The last story in this issue is “The Word of God” by Nir Yaniv (translated by Lavie Tidhar).  This morbidly hilarious short chronicles the wackiness that ensues when “the word of man” suddenly becomes the “word of God.”  People begin to change reality, sometimes in tragic or bawdy ways, simply by stating that something is so.  Occasionally, God Himself appears to chide a mortal for taking His name in vain, and His punishment is swift and brutal.

The story is written in a staccato style, with many brief ancedotes delivered in a rapid-fire fashion.  This drives a very fast pace, and one must be careful not to read too quickly, especially toward the end.  Also, since this story features Israeli characters and politics, many readers will not get all the jokes without putting in some extra effort to understand the context.
This piece exults in clever wordplay, and most of it is very effective.  The most important turn of phrase occurs at the end of the story, which is jarringly abrupt.  Even after several reads, the penultimate line may leave a reader wondering what exactly has happened.  It’s possible that the full meaning was lost in translation, but its subtle and unexpected wisdom will demand further contemplation.