By Matt Rowan
Reviewed by Joseph G. Peterson
Matt Rowan's second collection of short stories shows him expanding his range. Why God Why, his first collection of stories, featured mostly brief tales that showcased his brilliant talent for writing stories that can only be classified as high realism of the fake. Big Venerable is a collection of longer stories whose narrative pattern is largely built on the anarchic non-sequitur. Combine this pattern with more of that high realism of the fake and you end up with a combustible laugh-out-loud comedic performance that is strange, pathetic, all too real, and all too fake.
To show you what I mean by realism of the fake, take for example, this selection from his wonderful story, "So Many Rickety Bridges." In this story a bunch of non-woodsman are about to go on a hiking trip in a fake forest. Why are they hiking in a fake forest? Because all the real forests have gone away. Rather than mourn the loss of the real forests, these non-woodsman are as happy with their fake forest as former real woodsman must have once been happy with their real forest. As one of the non-woodsman explains:
They're not as dirty as real forests were, something none of us have ever had to worry about—all that dirt and other natural filth. An artificial forest is as real as anything is now, as real as being alive in a different time was for previous generations of people like the American pioneers and their real, living forests. They lived among plants that, apparently, had water inside of them and ate the sun somehow. Whereas, let me describe to you what I've seen in our new (and again, very clean) albeit artificial forest . . .
In "The Baker's Family," Rowan creates a surreal narrative that is part Kafka, part SpongeBob SquarePants when a golem of enlivened dough children bred from the flour and blood of a baker go off to rescue the baker's girlfriend from her obsessed ex-husband who wants to demonstrate to her that he still can consume copious amounts of donuts. The comedic language is everywhere at play as in the moment one of the dough children meets his maker:
But in the bakery, there remained a breaded body, a bread mound. It was a giant pile of cooked dough—so, bread really. It was more or less baked bread. It found the other apron, one of the other aprons, and it was going about its day, acting as though it belonged.
"Hello Father," it said in a low baritone. "Nice to see you."
The entity sort of slithered. It wrapped its bread arms around the baker and hugged him, cooing a bit. The baker couldn't help but feel touched deep in his bodily parts by this open and earnest display of affection.
These dough children and the baker live a happy idyllic life in the loving penumbra of the baker's girlfriend who resembles Snow White among the seven dwarfs. When she becomes the object of obsession to her former husband, the dough children are undaunted when faced with a water rescue that will surely dissolve the dough that comprises them.
The non-sequitur becomes hijinks comedy in "1208" when a newspaper delivery man, Meirion, who also shows his eating prowess by consuming large amounts of junk food, becomes obsessed with gaining entry into an exclusive restaurant that may or may not exist. His constant attempts to arrange a reservation through a telephone information hotline produce not access to the restaurant but long conversations between the food-obsessed newspaper deliveryman and the telephone operator. When all his attempts fail to gain Meirion a reservation, Meirion's boss, Feldspar, delivers a wildly hilarious and meandering story that is meant as an object lesson whose object and lesson is lost upon the hungry and desperate newspaper deliveryman.
"I want you to know, Meiry, that I thought of busting your ass right on out of here when I saw what was happening and I realized how much off track you'd gotten. But then I remembered that I was young once too. And I thought how maybe a story from my days as a youngish guy like you, with much of my whole life ahead of me, would help you to understand what exactly you've got to do now. So what do you think? You want to hear it?"
"I think that anything is possible, Mr. Feldspar. I'm out of new ideas. I'm happy to hear whatever you want to say to me," Meirion said sincerely, surprised at his sincerity, but no less sincere.
And like Meiry, the reader remains sincerely surprised at the sincerity of the story, "The Bureau of Everything Fitting into its Rightful Place," which is nevertheless sincere. In this piece, Rowan creates a fictional world that feels reminiscent of some of Kafka's work but that also hints at the madness that must exist in places like North Korea where autocratic leaders determine from above what the right order of things should be for all people. In this story, a woman fails to attend peaceful demonstrations where it is agreed that a new bureau will be formed to assure everything and everyone is always in their rightful place:
In keeping with several of the most recent rallies' themes, it was unveiled at yesterday's rally that a new arm of government will be established—only a small change effected in the hope of stemming the tide of more significant changes that have previously occurred or are on the cusp of occurring. The new governmental agency is the Bureau of Everything Fitting Into Its Rightful Place. It operates, very apparently, by the notion that everything already has a "right place," and the bureau's job will be to see to it that that is where said person/thing ends up.
By not showing up to the demonstration, the woman proves to not be in her "right place." As a result she is removed from her family and from the village and put into a surreal gulag called Dear Park, where instead of getting punished, the incarcerated are taught by her captors how to love:
The man in charge was tall, but not terribly intimidating. His build beyond his height was modest, almost spindly. But that wasn't what made him so unimpressive. It was that he went to great lengths to prove how loving he could be, but not in any perverted abuse-of-authority sense. He chose the more mundane abuse-of-authority sense. He thought he could teach others how to love, while we found our rightful place. It was his hubris and his pronounced lack of self-awareness that were truly to blame.
In most of the stories, irrelevant and powerless people revolt against powerful forces and they find themselves made even more irrelevant and powerless. In "The Big Venerable," a rogue band of mistreated and misunderstood cart collectors at a shopping center not-dissimilar from Costco, revolt against their all-powerful boss, but find themselves powerlessly tossed out into the hinterlands where the forces of revolution are creating anarchy by blowing things up. They return to their place of employment and after blowing it up, they attempt to show they care by trying to save all the preferred customers that had gotten maimed or killed in the explosion.
And on this collection goes: Kafka meets SpongeBob SquarePants to give birth to these enlivened and enlightening story creations. I highly recommend this collection for anyone looking for a genuinely unique read from a talented writer who is truly re-imagining what stories can do.