Leading up to the November 7th publication of PW’s Best Books of 2011, our reviews editors are blogging about some of their favorites from our top 100. Here’s the latest post:
Earlier this week, I put up a post at Genreville talking about strange books, unclassifiable books, books that blow off the top of your head. As I was writing it, I was thinking of (among other authors) Daryl Gregory, whose work unfailingly fits into this uncategorizable category. If you want to try to slap a label on his books, you can call them fantasy, or horror (as we did with his 2009 novel, The Devil’s Alphabet, when putting it on that year’s Best Books shortlist), or dark fantasy, or slipstream, or New Weird; but sooner or later all those labels will fall off, or perhaps peel themselves off and skitter away into the shadows, and you’ll be left only with a deep uneasy sense that maybe the world really is as he describes it, an amalgamation of the astonishingly glorious and the quietly terrible, and what we call reality is only a comforting illusion.
Unpossible is Gregory’s first collection. The stories are all quite short, with no time wasted on lumpy exposition or treacly morals, but each one carries all the grim weight and peculiar beauty of his novels, simmered down to a deceptively sweet syrup that goes down easy and then twists in your guts. They poke at complex, difficult notions, not so much trying to answer questions as trying to figure out how to begin asking them. In “Second Person, Present Tense,” “Dead Horse Point,” and “Damascus,” he combs through the mysterious and often troubling links between neurology and concepts of selfhood, free will, and religious belief. “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” and “Message from the Bubblegum Factory” ruthlessly deconstruct the American fascination and identification with superheroes, revealing our costumed idols as overgrown children whose destructive rampages are abusive and fascistic. These are not comfortable stories, which is a good part of what makes them worth reading.
To make the medicine go down, Gregory builds sympathetic and interesting characters out of a few well-placed sentences, as in this opening scene from the title story:
Two in the morning and he’s stumbling around in the attic, lost in horizontal archaeology: the further he goes, the older the artifacts become…. The territory ahead is littered with the remains of his youth, the evidence of his life before he brought his wife and son to this house. Stacks of hardcover books, boxes of dusty-framed elementary school pictures—and toys. So many toys. Once upon a time he was the boy who didn’t like to go outside, the boy who never wanted to leave his room. The Boy Who Always Said No.
Or this portrait of Eddie, a superhero’s disillusioned sidekick, from “Message from the Bubblegum Factory”:
“When I was hanging out with Soliton and the Protectors, I must have been kidnapped once a month. Held hostage, used as bait, snared in death traps. They especially liked to dangle me.”
“Over tubs of acid, piranhas, lava pits, you name it—villains are very big on dangling. Twenty years of this, ever since I was a kid. You wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve been shot at, blown up, tossed into rivers, knifed, pummeled, thrown off buildings and bridges—”
…I lean forward, and the guard puts a hand on my chest. I ignore him. “See, here’s the thing. I should be dead a hundred times over. But the rules of the universe don’t allow it. I’m not bragging—that just seems to be the way it works.”
This is a collection to linger over, or to set aside for as long as you can manage (a day, maybe two) and then compulsively return to. Reading it all at once leaves you feeling like poor Eddie after a few rounds with the villain du jour. But there’s nothing like Gregory’s super-powered punches to knock you out of your comfortable literary rut and leave you staggering, dazed, through an extraordinary new landscape that was somehow there all along.