The Great Frustration

By Seth Fried

Soft Skull
May 2011
192 pages


Reviewed by Tracy O'Neill


If you've ever manned a fast food drive-in window, washed restaurant dishes, or handed out balloons in a clown suit at a children's birthday party, you've probably heard that grammatically toothless phrase: "They don't call it work for nothing." Well, Seth Fried didn't title his debut collection The Great Frustration for nothing: Here the absurdity of everyday life is amplified into truly hopeless situations. These vary wildly, from the virgin guy kidnapped to become a member of a king's harem to the young boy who hams up his role in a school play to the extent that he becomes a social leper. No one is safe from the great frustration of life, including the Garden of Eden animals of the collection's title story. Perhaps it is for this very thread that five of the eleven stories in The Great Frustration are narrated in the first person plural. Fried seems to imply that the stymied scientists of "Loeka Discovered," the impotent parents of "Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre," the plaid-overall untouchables of "Those of Us in Plaid," the barely surviving survivors of "The Siege," and the lonely monks of "The Scribes' Lament" are not just frustrated individuals but in fact specimens of a universal tragedy; they are us.

The collection begins with "Loeka Discovered," a story about a group of scientists who turn jubilant with the discovery of a frozen ancient man, Loeka. The skip in their steps is squashed, however, when another bigger, badder, beastlier frozen ancient—called the Big Man—is found on the same mountain. Somehow, they rally around the hypothesis that Loeka had courageously pursued the Big Man after the Big Man ravaged Loeka's village, and though the scientific evidence is tenuous, they refuse to give up on it, even after a humiliating press conference:

When we finally unveiled our speculative sketch, the room burst into flat-out laughter. The reporters began to leave, shaking their heads in disbelief; some stopped to make catcalls and accuse us of bad taste… Nothing about Loeka made it to print, and two weeks later there was a picture in National Geographic of Tex flipping off a news van and pounding its hood with his shoe.

Like most of the protagonists of Fried's stories, the scientists are loveable fools who continue to believe through the blackest of black comedies.

Fried dips into territory George Saunders fans will recognize in several stories. "Those of Us in Plaid," the story of plaid-overalled peons envious of their mean-hearted work superiors in other-colored overalls echoes the color-coded hat hierarchy of Saunders's "Winky."  Like "Winky," the world of "Those of Us In Plaid" is a vicious one, in which the only choice seems to be abuse or be abused:

Sometimes they took the apples out of our lunch boxes, dipping them in the toilet, drying them off, and replacing them without telling us. In any given year, it was impossible to say just how many toilet apples we might have eaten. But worse than these simple degradations was that we would have given anything to be exactly like them.

The plot arc of "The Frenchman," though, is not contingent upon unrequitable desires. The cruelty of the world does not win out. Rather the story follows a young man as his outcast childhood gives way to a tender marriage. The story closes in a rare moment of gratitude and wonder: 

In moments like that—my wife having been comforted by the knowledge that she is in bed with her husband—I ask myself: When did I start to know better? When did I start to become the man who deserves her? When did the massive shortcomings of my youth become a door that I walked through?

It is a welcome respite from the pessimism favored throughout most of the book, and in this moment Fried is at his most emotionally incandescent as human connection transcends malice.

Perhaps the most interesting of the bunch is "Animalcula," however, a story which complicates the very idea of what makes a story a story. Fifteen sections, each about a different microscopic organism, comprise the piece. Fried manages to leverage descriptions of melites, paglums, and other miniscule life forms such that they become musings on human existential concerns. The brevity of life and our smallness in the span of the universe makes us, in Fried's hands, part of the same club as kessels, a microorganism that lives only four one-hundred-millionths of a second:

Details regarding the kessel are among the type of coldhearted facts that are inevitably mentioned at parties by angry young men who wish to impress upon anyone having more fun than themselves that the world is, in fact, little more than a brutal joke… It makes sense that scientists who watch that sad footage again and again—the kessel fluttering briefly and then vanishing—would eventually give in to despair.

Yet this final story is not just the diatribe of a young depressive kessel scholar. Fried's answer to the big, scary Sisyphean ordeal of life is not to indulge in false optimism or sentimentality but to allow love to trump existential despair:

So yes, it's true: the universe is massive, whereas we are small and quickly fading. But things are never as hopeless as people like Koch would have you believe. There are still opportunities for happiness for those willing to accept existence for what it is. Even a creature like the kessel seems to understand the transformative capabilities of something as simple as affection. When it finally finds its mate, the kessel exhausts its life in that purest intimacy, without care, as its one moment goes rushing past.

As Fried continues through the familiarly human behaviors of each animalcula, individual characters do not emerge. Much like the first person plural stories, "Animalcula" refuses to rely on the traditional narrative climax, in which an individual toils in epiphanic struggle. Instead Fried makes life itself—life even as it exists in organisms imperceptible to the human eye—the protagonist of the story, and it is a protagonist as nuanced, flawed, beautiful, and fallible as any great literary hero.