Field Notes: Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, The Literary Conference

TUNNELING TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH

SYNOPSIS: Kevin Wilson’s debut 2009 story collection, about Scrabble factory workers, unlikely museum curators, and projectile-hurling cheerleaders, among other overly specialized loners.

CONDITION: Ecco paperback, bought new last month from Greenwoods.

THOUGHTS: A surprisingly well-grounded set of stories, considering how much lunacy is packed into each one.

As such, I like to imagine these characters all live in the same small town. So the Scrabble factory from “Blowing Up On the Spot” sits down the road from the houses whose lawn gets shoddily set on fire in “Go, Fight, Win.” On the outskirts of town are the fringe businesses: Worst-Case Scenario Inc., Grand Stand-In—from whom you can hire a replacement grandparent—and the sparsely attended Museum of Whatnot. And underneath it all, the amateur tunnelers of the title story, burrowing around in the muck and the dirt in search of nothing in particular.

Or, with their varied but equally useless post-secondary degrees, that they’re all part of the same graduating class—Morse code majors rubbing elbows with students of museum science and Canadian history (the latter of which I take only mild, obligatory umbrage with).

This is the kind of seemingly reckless merriment that’s catnip to a reader like me. Yet that same grounded quality mentioned above is, in a way, the book’s undoing. Wilson tends to not let his funny stories be just funny. He has to sprinkle a little too much literary-fiction fairy dust on them; he has to twist them bittersweet.

So “Blowing Up On the Spot” isn’t just about a Scrabble factory, though it easily could have been (especially since at this factory, letters are sprayed indiscriminately from the ceiling out of massive chutes, for no apparent reason). Instead, it’s about a case of double spontaneous combustion, and a suicidal swimmer, and a girl whose hair tastes like candy—and only rarely are you permitted to laugh unreservedly, the way you want to.

Sometimes the balance yields unexpectedly rich results. The title story, for instance, turns on a dime and runs so far on its cartoon logic that the splash of reality at the end is refreshing, rather than more of the wet-blanket status quo. I admire the spry writing and beautifully kooky imagery throughout (notably in “Birds in the House” and “The Choir Director’s Affair”), too; and of course I’ll get behind any story that uses Mortal Kombat as its chief metaphor.

I suspect length might be a factor here—not to mention the fact that Wilson writes consistently for literary journals (his website lists dozens upon dozens of publications). So partly he just knows his audience, and tailors his work accordingly. No shame in that.

All the more reason, then, to anticipate Wilson’s first novel, The Family Fang, which is out next month. Hopefully there he’ll be playing by no rules but his own.

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THE LITERARY CONFERENCE

SYNOPSIS: César Aira’s 2006 novel—translated into English by Katherine Silver in 2010—about a translator’s unlikely quest for pirate treasure and world domination.

CONDITION: New Directions paperback, from same haul.

THOUGHTS: Those who come to The Literary Conference in search of academic foibles or roman à clef-style satire will be disappointed, to say the very, very least. Within the first 10 pages, Aira’s narrator (also named César) has unlocked a centuries-old pirate’s riddle and had a giant treasure chest catapult itself from the ocean floor and land, quite literally, at his feet.

Then he casually tells us he’s working on cloning—all the better to take over the world with. But his existing clones will only follow orders, and he doesn’t feel capable enough to give those orders himself. Solution? Duh: he’ll clone a genius. César settles on the Mexican author Carlos Fuentes, who happens to be attending the same conference in Venezuela.

The rest of this novella is dedicated, in its own roundabout way, to César’s scheme—which also involves three separate loves of his life, a microscopic wasp that actually looks like a seahorse, a tangled fable-within-a-fable framework, and a batch of giant blue silkworms.

In fact, The Literary Conference can be seen as an extended riff on the successful tone occasionally struck by Kevin Wilson’s stories. Aira’s book is bright and quick, without any of the attendant baggage that a designation like literary fiction tends to carry with it. Aira obviously has no problem ditching ideas as soon as he’s squeezed them dry; this makes sense for a guy who writes in short bursts at cafés, and who never revises.

The closest kindred spirit to this I can think of is Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Fatal Eggs, another giddy little blast of sci-fi from a writer seeking only to challenge and amuse himself. Both attempts are wildly successful, and both will hold treasured spots on my shelves for a long, long time.

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