Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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The stories here are brief, blunt, often of lonely people or misanthropes or those engaged in absurd pursuits. A man moves to New York and meets a man selling miniature cattle—tiny, tiny cows, the product of scientific experimentation, illegal, black market, but guaranteed to be “the next pet sensation.” A man passes gas in a coffee shop, taking pleasure in pondering the potential ramifications of the smell—the event of it—in the relationship of the couple on a first date at the same café. In one story, Superman breaks down, recognizing his own limitations, having failed to save an old man from a heart attack. In another, a narrator reaches “a frustration point,” practicing with flashcards and his cat: “I’m holding them up as if he recognized them at one point to begin with. As if this was just a review, which it is not. Review is what flash cards are all about. But I know, deep down, that he never even recognized one of these cards in the first place.” This is Sisyphus in new clothes, and hell is your mother’s rice pudding, the taste of it lingering like a film on your tongue.
Regret and second guesses lingers in these pages, too. Violence happens offstage, more or less, in the background: a spectacular moth emerges from a wood pile, and a man ponders it until he steps on it, but then he just keeps thinking about the body of the thing and accidentally fires a nail through a co-worker’s hand. Or a man has a dream: “All my old girlfriends were standing around my bed. They were all looking down at me. They were all beautiful. I was naked. They were all shaking their heads and mumbling,” and what they were mumbling was “God, what were we thinking.” Another man walks to a copy store: “He thought it would be better if his old girlfriend, Gina, was still his girlfriend. He asked the kid behind the counter for a piece of paper. Then he took out his marker and wrote I LOVE YOU, GINA. He made thirty-seven copies on fluorescent green paper, one for each time they had made love. She didn’t know it, but he had counted.”
So there is this tone, slice-of-life, slathered in pathos, not always eliciting sympathy but bringing forth at least a reflexive cringe. But Halliday has another tone, too: beyond the claustrophobia of internal musings on parking spaces, he can twist that interior sense of obsession—the way a narrator details what could easily be embarrassing details, the sort of things about which more adjusted folks would keep quiet, even feel shame—into something so sharply poignant, a nostalgia only dimly aware of its own intensity.
One narrator, for instance, reminisces about the sandwiches his mother packed for lunch, when he was a school kid: “I never traded sandwiches,” he explains, because “To give it away would be like saying, Thanks for the love, Mom, but I’ve got this over here.” Ultimately, it’s not the abstraction of love—or even the real labor or waking early to make and pack the lunches—that is the focus of this man’s thoughts. Rather, he clings to the physical particulars, the modes of wrapping and the commodities used to do so. Wax paper, for instance: “It was always in the house. My mom would use it for pies, for some reason I can’t remember. Line the pie plate or something. And for something to do with cookies. I remember her saying, ‘Okay, get out the wax paper.’ And I knew right where the wax paper was.” Object becomes totem, imbued by the rememberer with new force, power. “It makes me want to go back there,” he says, channeling some of the same desire—for some imagined perfection of the past, some fragment of a memory, unexamined and decontextualized—that the guy at the copy shop had, or that went sour for the guy having the dream of ex-girlfriends. This wax paper aficionado is clear. He doesn’t want to say hello to his mother, just “sneak in (I have a key) and check that third drawer and see if wax paper is still there,” earning some reassurance by the act, the presence of some token of the past as he believes it to have been. There is something universal here, I think, and also dreamlike—as in so many stories, or, to put it another way, so many of these tiny stories could well have been dreams, with the same wispy logic but unshakeable effect. The story of Sisyphus, after all, resembles a dream as well: rolling, rolling, but always shoulder first into the push. Taking the slope the wrong way, blind to accumulated evidence, forging onward in a kind of solipsistic daze: this describes the denizens of these pages, too, their boulders rolling back down with the sound of the shuttle of the copier, copying, or the rasp of wax paper as it meet the serrated edge of its own box.
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