Reviewed by Juliana Converse
by Robert Glick
Paperback: 195 pages, Nov 19, ISBN-13: 978-1949540048
“…one has a tendency to see the world as a vast junkyard, looking at a man and seeing only his (potentially) mangled parts, entering a house only to trace the path of the inevitable fire. Therefore when I was installed here, although I knew an error had been made, I countenanced it, I was shrewd; I was aware that there might well be some kind of advantage to be gained from what seemed a disaster.” —Donald Barthelme
In Robert Glick’s first short story collection, Two Californias, we move from the tense safety of the suburbs to the free-fall chaos of the city. The seven stories are divided into three parts, with the last story, “Failure Mechanism (Voicebox)” comprising the entire third. Only one character, the narrator of “Release,” reappears later in the second section, in “Hotel Grand Abyss.” The stories echo one another in sympathy for the starving undead and the brutality of youth, the New Wave soundtrack giving way to the anarchy and nihilism of post-rock and noise. Against this backdrop, the young characters in Two Californias face their outsized grief and the inevitable failure of the body by puzzling through imperfect coping mechanisms, even while life opens trap doors underneath them.
It is an oft-storied land, from Steinbeck to Didion, inspirational stomping ground for beatniks, hippies, and launching pad for hardcore punk. But if the Californias Glick depicts are predictably liberal in politics and rich in social justice efforts, they are also diseased and haunted. Indeed, the stages and shape of decay form each narrative, though non-chronologically. We are often learning a story from the state of decrepitude to before the disease takes hold, indicating that every beginning implies its own end.
The epigraph, a quote from Donald Barthelme, describes “entering a house only to trace the path of the inevitable fire.” This is the basis of Glick’s frequently referenced term, “failure mechanism,” which a quick search reveals originated in the 1940s as a military process analysis tool, or method of identifying the underlying cause of a malfunctioning system–such as a human being. Once that system has failed, it may become another thing entirely, e.g. zombie. If not that, then something else entirely.
Invoking Barthelme at the outset is a signal of surrealism (and even dead fathers) ahead, the quote itself taken from his story, “The Hiding Man,” published in the journal, Contact in 1961. The setting of that story, a movie theater devoted to horror films, is our unwitting introduction to the recurring character from “Release” and “Hotel Grand Abyss,” a professor specializing in zombie studies. The narrative voices in these stories, while rooted–even preoccupied with visceral details, dip frequently into reverie. This tendency for characters to dissociate, combined with the casual crime and serious anarchism of urban countercultures, also call to mind the stories in Jesus’ Son. And just like Denis Johnson’s 1992 classic, there is contained within the horrific the chance for redemption.
The young boy, Jacob in “In the Room/Memory is/White,” tasks himself with tiny missions he imagines will fix his parents’ marriage. Dorian, his astute babysitter feels something is “accelerating, becoming smelly, a cheap slab of meat gone bad.” At his mother’s workplace in the ophthalmologist’s office, she checks her eyes. “The things she knew stood in front of her, the oversized mason jars of long Q-Tips and eye washes. They were no longer there. They were something else.” Something in this woman’s life has changed irrevocably, causing the known things in her sightline to be transmogrified. The way you would have your eyes checked if you saw a ghost.
Glick has a talent for forming call-and-response sequences in his narrative movements. In a shift to Dr. Mulhouse, we feel his flashes of guilt and hatred: “At that moment, he wanted to hurt his wife more than he wanted to hurt his son. No longer would he say: No, of course I don’t care for her. He would tell Irene: Guess what? Tricia and I made love during your therapy sessions.” As if in response to this psychic invective, in the next scene Mrs. Mulhouse is stabbing a package of steak with her “jagged, bitten” fingernail. She leaves a mark in the plastic. “Dear Jacob, he [Dr. Mulhouse] would say to his hotel mirror, sometimes the gnawing is greater than the quiet satisfactions. Try and resist the gnawing.”
The zombies emerge as an intellectual backdrop in the following story–as if by naming it, the thing becomes flesh. The narrator in “Release” is a young associate professor on a plane in flight, rushing against time to see his grandmother one last time. His childhood memories are interrupted by obsessive, zombie-related thoughts and sexual laments. In a single sentence, he thinks of the moment of his grandmother’s death, the “home” which will be prepared for her, and thinks next of the bedrooms in zombie movies in which the living barricade themselves. In the next sentence, he laments his lack of luck in the bedroom. He has lived through the death of his twin, and now it’s his grandmother. Echoing the epigraph, he reflects, “Even if you’re lucky enough to watch someone die, the life cycle is all hacked up, an arrowhead more than a circle.” The death of his grandmother is itself a kind of zombie, the lurching return of grief, a reference to the once-living. It is an arrow pointing backwards, to his twin brother’s coma and death, and pointing forward to the reality that denying a terrible outcome cannot, as she had hoped, protect you from it. The clogging of repression becomes its own symptom of system failure.
In “Goat Pharmacy,” a delivery boy’s moment of failure becomes his liberation. The names in this story, Goat and Monkeyfur, evoke the brutish, unavoidable horrors of the human body. Donny’s sense of his own failing is that he is too squeamish to connect physically. He avoids and is repulsed by the sick and elderly, and his first fumbling attempt at losing his virginity is abruptly denied. His clumsiness and disgust, he senses, is not manly–not like his hairy, macho, and insensitive friend. And yet, he distinguishes himself first by betraying this friend, and then, when his kind, alcoholic boss collapses, he is the one who stays behind to help him, since, “Pathetic and subhuman aren’t the same thing.” Empathy as release.
The tone in “Hotel Grand Abyss,” the sequel to “Release,” is self-referential and aware. We have returned, years later, to the professor. Now he is considering why he insists on his father, who is slipping into dementia, moving in with him. It may be, he thinks, pure masochism, “Or I’m studying him. It’s like having a zombie chained to a fence, limb by limb deteriorating off, to gather information about behavior under duress. What they tell us as they starve.” As if by making the process academic, coldly investigative, he can create a buffer from the pain of watching his father’s decline.
Starvation grumbles elsewhere in the collection, as when, in the story “K/S,” Kirk and Spock’s fan-fictional romance is compared to a skin lesion. How the two lovers had perhaps been “starved” for each other throughout the series, the way a cancerous growth hungers for sustenance. That it itself is neither good nor evil, but simply a thing trying to live.
In the midst of narratives preoccupied with decay and disease, Glick’s language is vibrant, even magical, and often humorous in its treatment of youthful yearning and cynicism. The author flexes a talent for poetic prose especially in “Mermaid Anatomy,” which is narrated by a young man on vacation from Holland who plays hide-and-seek with a girl he meets at his hostel. The character’s street-by-street observation of the city is an evasion, a distraction from a hidden grief just below the surface (as some may read Neal Cassady’s adventures as a grand evasion of responsibility disguised as poetic investigation). With only the slightest intrusion of punctuation, we feel the chilled breath of the fog “dissipating a hand’s length over our heads,” and the saltiness of the docks in Dogpatch. When he’s abandoned to his own devices in this foreign city:
The untethering weightlessness and wind of the kite ballasted by the mutilation of flippers. Scales of waxen wings melting freefall the inconsequent splash in the sunstruck sea.
Readers obsessed with stories about place will be easily transported to Glick’s Californias, of disaffected valley teens and NorCal intellectual warriors. Fans of Jennifer Egan’s Another Visit From the Goon Squad, Brian Evenson’s chilling Windeye, or Laura Van den Berg’s haunting novel, The Third Hotel will love the intersections of philosophy with the horror genre and fabric of countercultures. One is reminded of the way in which our attempts to reconcile loss are imperfect, and ultimately transforming. And perhaps, Glick’s stories suggest, this is our only comfort: that death itself contains within it the potential for rebirth.
About the reviewer: Juliana Converse is a writer living in Baltimore City. A graduate of New York University’s Writers in Paris MFA program, she won first place in the 2014 F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival’s Short Story Contest for a story set in Baltimore, and her writing has appeared in literary journals, art galleries, and even on a billboard. She is currently working on her first novel, about punks in Washington, D.C. in the 1980s.