Michigan native David Means made a literary splash with his first collection of short stories, Assorted Fire Events. Reveling in the sordid, the unseemly and the downright strange, Means matched a detached sense of the highbrow with the blood and guts of the lowbrow, while twisting the language into knots. The literary world hungrily devoured his fiction and the collection became a National Book Award finalist.
The Secret Goldfish, Means’ latest collection of 15 short stories, continues his clinical fascination with sex, death and religion. He’s an inventive writer who finds surprising and unconventional angles to mask otherwise atonal stories of tragedy.
“A Visit From Jesus,” one of the collection’s better tales, slyly recounts Jesus’ disappointment when a troubled young woman refuses to follow his advice and murders her lover. Suffering from the flu, he laments, “Nobody wants to come back to me, to talk it over. It’s act first. Discuss later.” When the woman asks if she’ll be forgiven he answers, “Well, I’ll look into it. I mean, I’ll think about it.” Christ, displaying a bit of passive aggression, eventually grants her a stay of forgiveness, but only after she’s been raped, shoots smack and dies.
Means is relentless in the punishment he metes out to his characters. Doom, despair and unresolved grief are ladled out in big, meaty chunks while the third-person narrative maintains a chilly and distant perspective. Some of the stories are effective on their own, but, grouped together, the writer’s limitations become obvious.
Means’ narrative comes off as self-conscious, substituting intellectual aloofness for insight and studied wit for visceral connection. As a result, unexpected moments of violence and brutally suppressed emotions come off as overly calculated. There’s inevitability in his somber tone and goading indifference, and even the potentially heartbreaking “Blown From The Bridge” — a tale of regret and lost love — loses its punch. This overly discerning narrative style makes Means’ underlying commitment to his characters suspect and renders his grit and grime as affectation.
“It Counts As Seeing” follows the fatal tumble of a blind man down a flight of steps, as told by several highly unreliable narrators. It’s a nifty Rashomon-like gimmick that ultimately disappoints. The kaleidoscope of perspectives offers us no meaningful character and no greater insight than people see what they want to see.
“Michigan Death Trip” offers a bundle of Darwin Award-type scenarios with no real payoff. Despite the well-crafted moments and the consistently devious sense of humor, many of the stories seem more like writing exercises than completed works of fiction.
Recently, author Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections), while praising the work of Alice Munro, wrote of the literary purity of short stories. His affection for the genre is fed by the writer’s inability to hide the story behind chapters of digression, historical backstory and narrative flourishes. The success of a short story, in his opinion, rises or falls quickly, and its fate is directly linked to its execution.
It’s a good test, and it’s one this collection fails. In The Secret Goldfish, Means strives mightily to put a new spin on these stories, but by counterbalancing the raw brutality of his characters’ situations with intellectual disdain, his writing becomes more pose than purpose.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].