Sunday, December 28, 2008

On "Emporium" by Adam Johnson ***

Story collections are often inconsistent, and for me, that's how Johnson's collection read. Some stories shine, while others I had a hard time following or being interested in. All of them are ambitious, in their way. Try telling an alternative story of Canadian space exploration. Not an easy idea to pull off, but Johnson attempts it. Some of the stories try to do something grand, something unheard of--some end up just being weird, while others bring something new to the concept of the short story.

Unifying motifs of Johnson's collection include guns and technology. The technology bit is particularly interesting insofar as Johnson, at points, ends up telling what are essentially science fiction stories in the guise of literary fiction. And that is good. I find that science fiction is often too hung up on its ideas to bother with real characters and real places; in Johnson's work, by contrast, the characters and the settings are front and center, and whatever odd technological items that might be part of the world of his fiction are just that--little items in the background that his characters take for granted the same way we take our flat screen televisions for granted.

For me, the most successful stories are those that manage to keep the narratives personal, to keep the weirdness from overwhelming the rest of the work. "Teen Sniper"--the story of young police snipers who take the lives of supposed criminals but who seem still to immature to really understand their own hearts--provides an interesting start to the book. "The Eighth Sea"--the story of a nineteen-year-old kid assigned to a drunk driving class having an affair with one of his twice-his-age classmates--provides emotional punch to the end of the book. "Trauma Plate" (available online and discussed here) is another fine story. My favorite piece, though, is "Your Own Backyard," the tale of a man struggling to raise a son but who finds, as the story progresses, that the harder he tries, the further away his son seems to be moving. The story ends with a wonderful metaphor that mirrors the entire thrust of the story.

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