The Short Version: Stories of messy people, living messy lives in the now, the then, and the future. There’s a blistering vision of the apocalypse, an Afrin-addicted noir detective, a gang of terrifying RV people, and several young women – all of whom just want, in their own way, understanding.
The Review: The first couple Chuck Palahniuk novels I read, I likened the experience of reading them to that of being punched in the stomach – and wanting it to happen again. There was this visceral immediacy to them, a potency that has been lost (for better or for worse) in Chuck’s writing as he’s gotten older and more established. I don’t really seek out that kind of writing and the few pretenders to Chuck’s throne have left me feeling other things, few of them good.
And so it was such a pleasant shock to the system to feel, about halfway through “After” – this collection’s second story, breathlessly paced and endlessly revoltingly aggressive – that I felt that twinge in my gut. That shortness of breath. That vague dizziness that could, if you were prone to such things, induce fainting. (ed. note – I’m not prone to such things but every once and a while, a well-pitched story can take you to the brink.) And as I looked up from the book and blinked and took a sip of water, I smiled: this was potent, visceral, any other word you want to use for it. This was powerful stuff.
Now, the thing is, there’s a lot of it. The book isn’t 200 pages and yet there are something like 25 stories. And while the pace of the stories and the short length would (and probably will, despite this warning) inspire you to zip through it in a day – or even, let’s be honest, an afternoon – you really shouldn’t. You start to get numb after a while, your nerves shutting down from the repetition of stimulus. And that’s not a knock on the stories – they’re almost all that powerful – but rather a positive note: you want to take these doses sparingly, like a strong drug.
The thing that elevates Hunter’s writing, though, is that she also has this ability for crystalline, beautiful prose. You’ll read a story and it might be brutish and nasty or at least just grimace-inducing and then suddenly you’ll come on a sentence or a phrase or a paragraph that just… it’s like this mote, suspended in sunlight in the midst of a barroom fracas. There was one line that described a man as though he was “being whittled in reverse” – from figurine back to block of wood – that just… man, it knocked me out. And there are several more moments like that throughout the book, moments that cut through the artifice of the flash-fiction punch and actually land way deeper in your subconscious than you expected. Hunter has quite the facility with words to be able to shift from the gut-punch visceral oomph of oozing eyeballs and weird sex to the beauty of a line like that – and I’d be curious to see what would win out at novel-length.
As for the collection overall, there are a few stories that, for me, missed the mark. The longest, which also happens to be the most divergent (stylistically and tonally) from the mean of the collection, was that of the Afrin-addicted detective and I just… I found myself glazing over as I read it. It was convoluted and having come off of Claire DeWitt a day earlier, it couldn’t hold a candle. There were also a few stories that seemed vaguely like retreads – the same general territory, of young women and their attempts to understand the world, but also told in much the same fashion. In my head, several of these stories blur together and I almost wonder if an even more aggressive culling wouldn’t’ve tightened the collection and given it even an even stronger punch. Still, what’s here is all really intense work.
Rating: 4 out of 5. This is a tough book to rate/describe – on the one hand, the technical ability on display is amazing. The way Hunter writes is immediate and potent and you can’t deny that. But I could imagine someone else – or even myself, at a different time or in a different place – reading these stories and being completely turned off by that ability instead of cautiously in awe of it. These stories are at times gross, sad, depressing, hilarious, frightening, confusing… but they’re all intensely refreshing. Take that as you will.