By Sally K Lehman
I’m a slow reader. I like to read every word, go back to reread sentences and paragraphs, and go back several pages to make sure I know who all the characters are – especially in short stories. So when I offered to review the new short story collection Burnt Tongues : An Anthology of Trangressive Stories, edited by Chuck Palahnuik, Richard Thomas, and Dennis Widmyer, I was leery about it. I wanted to get a timely review out, and I needed to read the stories fast to do it. I gave myself two days.
There are three things I should disclose before I get into this review. First, one of the contributors is my friend and fellow Blue Skirter, Gayle Towell, and I couldn’t be happier for her. Second, I studied with Tom Spanbauer for four years, so I understand a lot of the techniques Chuck Palahniuk has helped to infuse in these stories. And third, I almost always read the ends of books when I’m about halfway through – meaning I knew Harry married Ginny in the last Harry Potter book, and that Richard Mayhew went back to London Below in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and I went on reading them anyway.
So, I read Gayle’s story “Paper” first because I was happy for her. Gayle Towell’s piece is about the trials of starting over in life – in work, in relationships, in dreams. Her narrator creates the image of a stick figure woman on the outside edge of a toilet paper roll at a new job, and as the story proceeds the stick woman slowly disappears. This story is a stark look at what it means to be a woman in so many aspects of life.
I read the last story, “Zombie Whorehouse” by Daniel W. Broallt, second. Not going to lie, I love zombie stories and this one is a very good one. Daniel Broallt has put together a world with usable undead of all shapes and sizes, then plops us down into the middle of a group of them. Probably the best line in the story comes when the narrator “breaks” one of the hookers and is told, “There goes your deposit.” Need I say more?
After reading those first two stories, I started again at the beginning. I read all of the introductions to see what Chuck Palahniuk, Richard Thomas and Dennis Widmyer had to say. Then I read all the stories between the introductions and Zombie Whorehouse.
I wish I could give a full review of every story in this collection, but that would be not only a great deal of work, but unfair to you as readers. You need to read these to truly understand the magnitude of what has been collected here. So here are a few reviews.
“F for Fake” by Tyler Jones is about a writer pretending to be another, more successful writer. I don’t know if this piece reminds me more of JD Salinger’s quest for complete anonymity, or perhaps Chuck Palahniuk’s desire, at times, to be less well known. Many writers write about writers, but Tyler Jones has done it incredibly well here. The narrator’s persistence in being someone else is gloat-worthy, right down to where he extorts the services of his lawyer in support of the game.
One story that particularly affected me was “Gasoline” by Fred Venturini. This story balances carefully between the lines of truths and lies, monsters and men. The narrator is a seemingly tragic character, until I read the rest of his story. Until I read about how he had mercilessly damaged people who loved him and befriended him. Fred Venturini made me wish a half-burnt man was more damaged than half. That’s some powerful writing.
These stories, as a whole, are about real people and the ways that life fucks with us. They are about our frailties, obsessions, lies, truths, and the stench it all makes as we make our way through the world. These stories are the real things that break us down. And all of that is fucking amazing! The truth of these stories is where we meet the different kinds of monsters living in the world.
So, did I like all of the stories in this collection? No, I didn’t. And I’m not going to list any of the ones I didn’t like, because as a writer, I don’t think there is a reason to flog those writers I don’t see eye-to-eye with. Also, even the ones I didn’t like right now, I might reread and like some day. As Chuck Palahniuk says in his introduction, “For the rest of my life a different me will pick up this book again and again, read every page, and never feel as if I’ve finished it… These stories show us new worlds like a dozen pairs of eyeglasses.”
People are not perfect, and the stories Chuck, Richard, and Dennis have put together show us a load of imperfection. The stories are each their own individual worlds, with the gunk of the human experience as their common element. It is peeking into the head of each writer, and discovering the scariest things about the people around you.
And now, I’m going to go back and reread these stories, slowly.