Stories II by T.C. Boyle / Viking / Penguin Group / 2013 / 978-0670026258 / 944 pages
In some form or another the short story has probably been around as long as man has had the desire and the ability to communicate. Oral tales told around the fire at night aren’t going to be long drawn out affairs. Neither are they going to deal with more than one subject. While they might not have been stories in the way we think of them, early ones were probably embellished tales of successful raids on other tribes or descriptions of hunts, the format they followed wouldn’t have been much different from the ones we read in books today. They would have recounted a particular incident or time period in an individual’s life.
Leaping ahead to the 19th century with the introduction of mass media, specifically periodicals, a demand for stories to serve as popular entertainment developed. While Charles Dickens might have been serializing his epic works, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was writing the adventures of his famous detective for the Strand Magazine as short fiction. In the early part of the twentieth century the short story was both the province of those writing genre fiction like Robert E Howard and literary fiction, James Joyce. The short story has continued to endure because of its versatility as a vehicle for expression. Whether a sword and sorcery adventure or an introspective examination of the human psyche, the short story can be anything to anyone depending on what its author chooses to do with it.
T.C.Boyle is probably one of contemporary fiction’s premier short story writers. There are very few today who have equaled his output in terms of quantity and quality. Proof of both comes in the release of the 900-plus page T. C. Boyle Stories II by Penguin. The volume of work he’s managed to produce in the twenty or so year period this book represents is impressive enough (especially considering this is the second of two volumes). However, you’ll also quickly discover he is no hack churning out story after story as if on an assembly line. Each is an intricate and surgical examination of human behaviour, unflinching, and rather terrifying, in its honesty.
I say the latter for while there are undeniably humorous moments in some of the stories, the weaknesses of the characters in them are described so accurately we can’t help recognize what we have in common with them. It’s far too easy in reading some of his stories to see how given the right sets of circumstances, or the wrong ones, how you could have followed the same path his people end up taking. Like figures out of classical tragedy whose downfall comes about because they refuse to moderate their behaviour, his characters’ paths are caused by a similar fatal flaw. However, as they are acting out their lives in surroundings or circumstances we’re familiar with, their actions not only ring true, we can see the elements of ourselves in them.
What impressed me the most about the work I read in this collection, (I defy anyone to sit down and read all 900-plus pages of stories contained in this volume in one sitting) was how much his work has evolved since I first read it back in the mid-1980s. While his material was as biting as it is now, it wasn’t quite as insightful or nearly as concerned with the hows and whys of his characters. The stories were more general social commentaries instead of the far more sophisticated character studies they have become.
One thing which has remained consistent over the years is his ability to write without sentimentality. Anybody looking for the type of feel good story you’d find in Reader’s Digest or Saturday Evening Post have come to the wrong guy. He’s not about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps or heartwarming in any shape or form. People in his stories make messes of their lives, and no matter what their good intentions might be, don’t often manage to clean up after themselves. However, just because he’s not sentimental, doesn’t mean he isn’t without empathy for those he writes about. We wouldn’t be able to read these stories if the characters were cruel or stupid or Boyle didn’t feel anything for them. He manages to imbue even the most down and out of them with the humanity required to make them both believable and to keep us interested in them.
It’s inherent in any author to be able to postulate “What If?” It’s what fires their imaginations and breathes life into the worlds they create on the page. Boyle’s ability to look at an idea or situation and ask “What If?” is at the same time the most imaginative and the most grounded in reality I’ve ever read. Like science fiction and fantasy writers he excepts any premise is possible, yet like a realist his settings and people stay incredibly normal. “After The Plague” is a perfect example of this. The population of the world has almost been completely wiped out by some sort of disease and only a few people, who happened to be in isolated situations, managed to survive. In most instances these types of post apocalyptic settings end up being excuses for zombie attacks or mutations of some sort or another resulting in constant battles for survival.
In Boyle’s universe life just goes on as it did before with far fewer people around. As the protagonist, a teacher who was on sabbatical in an isolated cabin, discovers, just because somebody else survived doesn’t mean the two of you are going to get along. Personality clashes can happen even in Eden when you’re trying to recreate the world. In fact, the end of civilization as we know is a rather prosaic event. Sure everybody’s off the grid now and has to become self-sufficient, but since the grocery stores are still well stocked with canned goods, there’s plenty of fresh water and material goods are there for the taking, nobody is lacking for anything. What does it matter if you’re now sharing the roads and sidewalks with bears and mountain lions, there’s plenty for everybody.
The odds of the planet being hit by an asteroid or other object from space big enough to cause the type of calamity which wiped out nearly 75% of all the species on earth including the dinosaurs during any individuals lifetime are roughly ten thousand to one. Which just happen to be the same odds you have of being killed in an automobile accident in the next ten months or living to be a hundred with your spouse. When Chicxulub hit the earth 65 million years ago in the area where the Yucatan Peninsula now sits it left an impact crater 120 miles wide, was six miles across and is thought to have been travelling at a speed of roughly 54,000 miles per hour. In the story named for the asteroid Boyle uses details of a variety of different similar strikes to help us fathom what it would be like to lose somebody in an accident.
What are the odds your daughter will be walking down the road at the same time somebody who had too much too drink will begin to make their unsteady way home down the same road? If the odds are the same as those of the earth being hit by an interstellar object capable of destroying civilization, will not the damage be equal as well? For anybody who receives the phone call in the middle of the night telling them their daughter has been involved in an accident wouldn’t it be the equivalent of their world being destroyed, their universe crumbling? What at first seems to be a means of distancing us from the experience actually ends up bringing it into proper perspective. Their shock at what’s happened is made even more real when we begin to understand how unlikely an event it really is. By comparing the death of a child to the end of civilization we are brought into the heart of the experience and made to understand it with chilling clarity.
Whatever Boyle chooses to write about he always manages to find a way to bring us into the heart of the central character’s experience. The usual distancing effect of fiction doesn’t seem to exist in the worlds he creates. We are plunged into the lives of his characters with all the chill of diving into a mountain fed stream. Like a portrait painter who doesn’t gloss over warts or beauty marks Boyle’s work is compelling for all that it is frightening. This is the work of an uncompromising artist. Don’t expect to find much comfort among his words, but be prepared to be amazed at the images he creates and the emotions he’s able to stir within you.