The Short Version: Ten stories about the end. The end of the world, or of a world. The edge of the world. The moment where everything changes, where the world perhaps starts anew but leaves the old one behind.
The Review: First of all, let’s talk about the spine of this book. Holy stroking, Batman: the covers are your typical slightly-matte but the spine… the spine is smooth and glossy and you just want to touch it. My love affair with Harper Perennial’s design choices continues.
Okay, so the stories. Bunn, the screenwriter for Kill Your Darlings, delivers ten rather varied stories in tone and content – but they’re all unified by this idea of being at the “end” of something. But the thing about endings is that they rather often presage beginnings: so each story actually ends with something just beginning, giving a paradoxically satisfying cliffhanger feel to each.
The varied content of the stories is Bunn’s biggest achievement here: he writes everything from a horror-film pastiche to quiet internal struggles with the same propulsion, giving everything that happens the same amount of weight and care. The dissolution of an online world carries the same weight as the discovery of a dead baby (more on that in a moment) – and this does not lessen the impact of the latter but, rather, heightens the potency of the collection as a whole. I’ve been reading short story collections so individually of late that its nice to see a collection that does survive as a whole, where there’s a thematic combination and where each story lends itself to supporting that theme.
But you’re probably still going “uhhh, dead baby what?” so let’s talk about content. Bunn’s stories are not Palahniukian in their gross-out but they aren’t sunshine and roses either. In “The Worst You Can Imagine Is Where This Starts”, a father finds a dead baby in a trashbag in the garage. In “Everything, All At Once”, the story opens with a woman’s septuagenarian mother calling her daughter to tell her about the lichen in her vagina. And in perhaps the most troubling story in the collection, “When You Are The Final Girl” (the aforementioned horror film pastiche), a young man who survived a disfiguring car accident leans into being the monster that he appears to be by attempting (several times) to drug and rape the sister of the driver who caused the accident.
Some heady stuff. But Bunn never leans on the gross-out or the weird. Instead, he uses these moments to create fully-formed characters, characters who are only with us for maybe 20 pages (the longest story is the last, clocking in just under 30 pages) and yet they exist as whole creations in that time. These utterly macabre situations simply provoke these characters into moments of, as I’ve said, endings.
It’s not all dark, though. There’s a vein of humor shot through the whole novel, even in some of Bunn’s larger narrative decisions. Perhaps my favorite story in the collection, “Ledge”, imagines explorers during the Golden Age attempting to sail around the world… and discovering that it is, indeed, flat. But what’s over the edge is completely unexpected for them. He twists a common theme while also maintaining historical accuracy in the fears of the sailors – and it’s delightful. So, too, is the opening story about a young man who goes to summer camp that’s all about the geopolitical realities of nuclear war in the 80s. We expect certain things from these stories and Bunn manages to deliver something just off the mark, in a refreshing way.
Rating: 4 out of 5. As good as the stories are individually and as well as the collection coheres as a single object (held together by that spine), there’s something lacking in the final resolve. I put the collection down and thought “oh, very good” and moved on and felt nothing more about it. I’ll read whatever Bunn writes next (and I now want to see Kill Your Darlings) but I feel strangely like the collection didn’t strike me at that deeper level, despite each story feeling perfectly poised. Perhaps it was the perfection of it all that bothered me – or perhaps I’ll be proved wrong in time, with this collection hanging around long after I’d assumed I’d forget. Perhaps it’ll be that spine that will stir memories every time I see it on the shelf. Time will tell, I suppose.