Monday
Aug152011

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day

By Ben Loory



Penguin
July 2011
224 pages
978-0143119500

 

Reviewed by Gabe Durham


 

Fiction writers tend to find fairy tales useful. That is, fairy tales make easy fodder for poking fun at contemporary targets (the Politically Correct Bedtime Stories series of the 90's, David Sedaris's Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk), for casting doubt on conventional notions of good and evil (The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, Gregory Maguire's career), for using the basic elements of an old story as fodder for gleeful riffing (Barthelme's Snow White), or for working magical events into serious and otherwise realistic contemporary fiction (Kelly Link, Aimee Bender, Etgar Keret). But I know of no writer working today who respects the Grimm fairy tale tradition like Ben Loory.

Loory isn't referencing the old tales, he's writing new ones. The forty-one stories that make up Loory's debut, Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, are short, spare works of terror and whimsy in which TVs get sad and Martians cook dinner. Many of the Stories could be read to little kids while others are too spooky or too existentially troubled. In "The Snake in the Throat," a man coughs up a snake, bashes the snake with a rock, and then murders all his friends. "Please God," the man prays "out loud to himself" at the end, "I'm sorry I did that. I had no idea I could do such a thing. I didn't even know I had it in me." The sense I get is that the author does not care who (or what age) this book is for.

Nor does Loory allow himself to get hung up on the "why" of his absurd premises. When he explains, in one story, "Somehow in the night, it seems the boy's screams carry farther than they did during the day," the "somehow" functions as the author's playful "go with me here."

And he's interested in taking us to some unsettling places. The wild and horrific are presented as the most natural thing in the world, and objects of everyday life are to be feared. The fantastically unsettling "The Little Girl and the Balloon" begins, "A little girl found a balloon lying in the street and she cried and ran all the way home." Her mother comforts her, but the next day, something has changed. "The balloon is dangerous," her mother tells her, "and we all must stay inside."

The stories are bound together by curious and often rewarding repetitions, including sudden time lapses, distraught characters wandering down long roads, use of the word "suddenly," the absence of names, and an abundance of recursive loops. People often encounter their own doubles, such as the man who defeats death and becomes death himself. When, late in the book, a boy and girl find the corpses of a man and woman floating in the water, you can guess who the corpses will turn out to be.

Another major thread is that characters with supposed free will often unwittingly become the vehicles of bigger forces—by resisting those forces, the characters play into them. A battle over a fake book turns the book into a bestseller, a drained pool monster is not banished but freed. It is never suggested that the forces—monster, UFO, invisible crown, and death himself—do not exist, but their reality doesn't make the people who encounter them any more sane.

Loory's humor never registers as ironic, in part because we learn so little about the characters and their motivations. In dialogue, he is careful not to characterize—a man says things that "a man" would say ("I've always wanted to be a knight," a man says one story. "It just seems like it would be so much fun.") and his wife, like "a wife," replies in kind ("Fun? It's a good way to get killed!"). To offer us a particular man would be to give up the universal. The sparseness also allows for an ink blot element: So much goes untold that we must fill in the gaps. And as in a good horror movie, the evil that Stories hints at is far more potent than anything on the page.

Throughout Stories, Loory's flair for the bizarre skirts camp at every turn. When an octopus gives up an immortal life counting spoons on land to join his family in the sea, he calls out, "I'm coming, brother. I'm coming, nephews. I'm coming friends. I'm coming home. It's me!" That a moment like this can register as earnest in 2011 is, in itself, a triumph.