Channeling Steven Millhauser by way of George Saunders, The Great Frustration is a sparkling debut, equal parts fable and wry satire. Seth Fried balances the dark—a town besieged, a yearly massacre, the harem of a pathological king—with moments of sweet optimism—researchers unexpectedly inspired by discovery, the triumph of a doomed monkey, the big implications found in a series of tiny creatures. – Soft Skull Press listing
I’m crazy about Seth Fried. Or at least his stories. He combines a very cool sense of humor with a way of getting to the heart of important matters. He likes first person plural. I’m so new to this voice, I don’t always recognize it; I think of it as “reportorial” style. This was true when I read Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came To The End and it’s just as true now; I had to be told some of these stories were “we” stories, because it isn’t, to me at least, always obvious. I’m going to sic Zin on first person plural. [note: Zin refuses to be sic'd, beyond citing Brian Richardson's claim that first person plural is often used by members of minority or underappreciated classes, and manages to be first-person and third-person simultaneously, as opposed to second person which sometimes vacillates between the two].
I’ve already discussed “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre” that terrific story in the 2011 Pushcart volume that goaded me to get this collection. He’s been compared to George Saunders, and I think there’s also a bit of Steve Almond in there (or maybe I just think so because I just read Almond’s new collection). In a great interview at TheBarking.com, he cites his influences as Italo Calvino, Steven Millhauser, Stanley Elkin, Donald Barthelme, Rainer Rilke, and Woody Allen. He’s got an amusing blog and he’s been making trailers for this book, he’s got a brand-new flash on the brand-new Tin House blog’s Flash Fridays, and some other things. I’m obsessed with all things Seth Fried. Can you tell?
It’s a great collection. Wacky. Heartbreaking. Smooth reads with unusual situations, occasional technical tricks, and great emotional payoff. Characters who are confused because they feel things they don’t think they should feel. Funny-sad in that way that makes you jump up and down and say, “Yes, I’m so glad someone gets it!” and then makes you want to be the change you want to see in the world. Astute observations about relationships, current events, and human behavior. Every time I read a story I had the impulse to run around blathering about it. I’ve restrained myself since I knew I’d be doing a post about the collection. So now I can blather. Damn, you’ve got to read this book. (And no, I don’t get commissions)
In the interview mentioned above, he talks about how he combines urgency and concept:
If a story is all concept and no urgency, I think that’s when you run the risk of shallowness and/or gimmickry. Conversely, if a story is all urgency with no concept to make it compelling, you can start to run the risk of sentimentality and/or preachiness. What works for me is to decide first what urgent thing I’m hoping to express, and then to come up with a concept/scenario that suits that urgent thing. Of course, both the urgent thing and the concept can change radically throughout the writing of a given story. What’s important is that there be a strong relationship between the two.
These stories are great examples of this. The other thing he does so well is come up with details about a situation. I mentioned this in my comments on “Massacre” – the methods of massacre. In each story, there are little samples that are inspired, from the way scientists’ behaviors change in “Loeka” to methods of hazing in “Plaid” to how each animal experiences paradise in “Frustration.”
I loved “Massacre,” and I loved the rest of the stories in this book. I read it mostly in public, on busses and in waiting rooms, and I discovered something: while it’s embarrassing to cry in public, as I have over so many stories, it’s even worse to giggle.
“Loeka Discovered” (originally published in The Missouri Review and available online, along with an introduction and study questions):
Occasionally some small reminder will make us cringe. The outline of a tooth on a dentist’s window. A picture of a mountain. A small man on the street with a pained look on his face. Though just as often, we’ll see the stars at night and wonder once again how they might have looked to Loeka. We’ll try to remind ourselves that despite everything, we had believed in something. And what was the matter with that?
A group of scientists work on a prehistoric body they’ve named Loeka. They’re thrilled to pieces, to the point where one is writing poems to a young intern (his briefcase bulging) and work is flying along at breakneck pace. Then another prehistoric body, Big Man, is discovered, and the mood changes; the briefcase deflates, work becomes tedious. When the arrowhead is found, the mood changes yet again. And the press all along has a role to play, as well. Oh, it’s hilarious, but it also has something to say about science and faith and truth and belief, about the press, and about group dynamics (which is why first person plural is a good choice). Go ahead, read the story. Seriously, aren’t you curious about the briefcase?
“Life in the Harem” (originally published in Tin House):
The scale itself ranged from one penis to roughly thirty.
You want to read this story now, don’t you? A young man is placed in a harem (in an undefined time and place where such kings and such harems exist) after the king hears him moan while looking out the window. He fears the worst, but finds out he had no idea. And he learns a great deal about the nature of desire (and a little bit about what it’s like to be a woman). The crazy details amaze me. Penises instead of stars in the king’s little black book? A chart of women by missing or extra body part? How does anyone come up with this stuff?
“Those Of Us In Plaid” (originally published in McSweeney’s):
Still, regardless of everything experience had taught us, we hoped that one day we’d deliver the beaker filled with strange liquid to the testing facility so promptly and so without incident, or paint the numbers on the capsule so perfectly and so without dribbles, that we would somehow win them over. That we’d begin receiving invitations to their famed barbecues, or to a raucous birthday party at the nudie bar near the airport…
The only problem was that as we grew closer to the monkey, the idea of dropping him into a volcano and then blowing him up seemed, more and more, to be unbearably cruel.
“Thrills! Moral Imperatives! Perturbations of the Human Spirit! And a Monkey!” says the trailer for the story (at least I think it does; videos make my computer burp and fart so I avoid them). Barbecue sauce, too. Pay attention to the barbecue sauce, it’s highly symbolic. Another first person plural story, and again I didn’t realize it until I was done. The grunts, low men on the totem pole in plaid coveralls, endure a lot of bullying from those in more desirable coveralls. Hornet pheremones in the hand sanitizer? Monistat in the coffee? Maybe I’ve just been hanging around boring people all my life. The story goes exactly where you expect it to go, but it’s so well done, I was happy to go there.
“The Misery of the Conquistador” (originally published in Story Quarterly):
Practically speaking, my purpose is not to collect gold, but to collect gold with violence. After all, unless it is gathered in a way that requires as many men and resources as possible, gold itself is useless. If gold is to be worth anything, then the act of collecting it needs to involve shipbuilders, arms makers. It needs to involve the men who grind the gunpowder, the men who pour that powder into barrels, the porters who load those barrels onto a ship. It needs to involve men who rent those porters rooms, the men who sell those porters bread. It needs to involve the men who bake that bread, the men who grind that wheat. It needs to involve the farmers who stand grimly at the edges of those wheat fields, drenched in sweat. Gold is arbitrary. What is significant is the way in which it is seized and toward what end it drives the toil of many.
I’ve always been bothered (well, not always, but over the last couple of decades when I’ve been paying slightly more attention to that dumbfounding craziness known as “the economy”) by the idea that the economy must be “growing” in order to be considered “good.” At some point, when the earth is saturated with people (like, um, now), maybe we should think about a new model which makes a stable economy the goal. If for no other reason than because we’re running out of things to put advertising on. I had a brainstorm a few years ago while attending a Christmas pageant at a local church, noting all the thank-yous in the program to those who’d donated costumes or props or whatever: “Welcome to the Hannaford Christmas Pageant!” or “the Paul’s Market Veteran’s Day Parade” and eventually, “A Maine Savings Bank Funeral.” I suspect somewhere there’s already a “Vera Wang Wedding.” But I missed the obvious: “Operation Desert Thunder, brought to you by Haliburton.”
That isn’t even the main point of this story, however. The title conquistador has killed a native woman. He keeps replaying it in his mind, changing it a little each time, to provide different motivations or outcomes. His primary concern is to not look weak in front of his men, which means he has to violate his sensibilities over and over again. The story reminded me a lot of Wells Tower’s “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.” Maybe a little too much, though the concerns of the conquistador are different from those of the Viking. And maybe it’s more of a meditation than a story. But it’s still damn good reading.
“The Great Frustration“
Near a small pond, the penguin waves the dull blades of its arms up at the sky, as if already protesting the existence of a dense and impractical God.
It’s Paradise, and the animals in the Garden of Eden deal with it. I don’t want to say more, because it’s such a perfectly written story, it needs to unfold in its own way. On first read I was left with the sense that it’s all exposition, no plot. And it sort of is. But I think it’s supposed to be; I think that is the point, which the last paragraph makes clear: we know the plot already, and this is the exposition that makes sense of it. It’s also a story you can’t help smiling and laughing over as you read, while shaking your head in sad recognition.
“The Siege” (originally published in The Missouri Review)
The question now is: When will the enemy make their final escalade over the walls? This question seems to resonate within a larger question, which is: Why have they not already made their final escalade over the walls?
I have the same sense with this story as with the previous one: it’s exposition (though there is some backstory). And again, I think that’s deliberate, because the plot is the waiting, the dread. And, of course, how it came to this. For me this was one of the less-terrific stories, which doesn’t mean it isn’t good; there’s still tremendous power in the acceptance of responsibility for their plight: “But maybe if we had fallen asleep with our arms draped lovingly across our wives, their leaving would have woken us, allowing us to say something, even if it were only good-bye. Maybe if we knew our children better, it would have been easier to turn eating a rat into a kind of game.” And I began wondering about different types of courage along with the story (again, written in first person plural, making the responsibility and the pondering on courage a community affair). I think I just had a similar reaction as I had to some of Jim Shepard’s stories in Like You’d Understand, Anyway, that while they’re great stories, I really don’t want to suffer that much. And of course the fact that the story causes me to suffer is a testimony to its power.
When did the massive shortcomings of my youth become a door that I walked through?
A memoir of a major faux pas of his childhood: the narrator appeared, enthusiastically, in a play written by his gym teacher (that’s what I love about these stories; even the tiny details amuse and/or resonate). He didn’t realize at the time it espoused a “shockingly intolerant worldview” full of stereotypes about every race and nationality. He was a seventh grader, after all. And pretty soon, an outcast himself. It’s hilarious, and it leads to the larger question above. And it smacked me in the head. In one of my school choral events, we performed a similarly shocking piece about Christmas Around the World – “jing-ee-ber, jing-ee-ber, ah-mond-coo-keee” followed by Santa and his Mexican reindeer Pablo, among other things. Riots would ensue if the piece were performed today. At the time (before the 60s became the 60s), it was what passed for multiculturalism.
This is the story most recently written. That surprises me, since it’s my least favorite story in the collection. Which is ok, it’s the middle of the collection, it’s where writers and editors always stick the least-favorite stories. It’s not a bad story, I just don’t think the concept was worked in that effectively. But it’s still fun to read, and, for some of us, embarrassing, just as a memoirish tale.
“Lie Down and Die” (originally published in McSweeney’s)
My family was full of stories like that: dubious suicides, sudden disappearances, the police always suspecting foul play….It was as if our family tree had been written in invisible ink, names and branches disappearing as quickly as they were written.
This is the oldest story in the collection, written when Seth was 20. It kind of went by me. It’s very short – flash length – so it was over before I felt like I was struggling. And again, it’s not that it’s bad. A lot of it’s great – again the details he comes up with to illustrate the unlucky nature of his family show flair. And I’m not one to argue with McSweeney’s. But I just didn’t get it. Sorry. No, I’m not sorry, at least I’m pretty sure I’m not just swept away and handing out praise randomly; the stories do have to earn it, individually. If I’d read this on a flash site, I’d probably love it. But for me, it didn’t reach the level of the rest of the work here.
“The Scribes’ Lament”
We copied manuscripts with a keen understanding, one word leading logically into the next. Great lovers of language, we recognized the same look of fulfillment in one another’s faces as we worked, an abiding gratitude to the Lord for having given us access to the world of words, their firm and apprehensible meaning. After all, wasn’t that the foundation of our faith? It was the word of God that we followed. It was the word of God that instructed us and which propagated all goodness in the world.
Superb. This is that perfect blending of concept and urgency. The foundations of religion, what better concept? And there’s a little writers’ workshop thrown in, though that might go by anyone who’s never been in one. And of course it’s first person plural again. It has to be. Throw in Beowulf, and it’s the perfect story (I spent a semester as an undergrad obsessed with Beowulf). The story follows this group of scribes writing down the epic under the direction of Ælfric, with the unwilling assistance of Wigbert in the role of hapless victim. I don’t even want to try to summarize. It’s hilarious. But all the time, there’s the element of the scribes writing, describing, and collaborating to produce a cohesive narrative – and the difficulties they have doing that. The implications of same. Like I said, superb. And it earns it.
“Animacula: A Young Scientist’s Guide to New Creatures” (portions published in Kenyon Review, Ninth Letter, and JMWW)
However, before you allow this skepticism to taint your research, keep in mind that your own vision manipulates reality more than any microscope ever could. Far less distortion takes place between the objective lens and eyepiece of a microscope than takes place in your own mind when you stare at your feet in the bath.
This is a collection of fifteen descriptive essays about various critters, plus one overall essay about observation. [Addendum: this story is contained in the Pushcart 2013 Prize Anthology, which makes it the second story from this collection to win the honor] The critters are, of course, unlike any you may have encountered or read about. The kessel has a lifespan of a few one-hundred-millionths of a second. The dawson is beautiful. And the bartlett cannot be observed at all. Each essay starts with a description of the critter, followed by the implications. For example, the peregite, who live in rings orbiting the earth, are the first creatures to adapt to life in space; it is they, not people, who have stepped out of the oceans and onto dry land, so to speak: “On one hand, we feel usurped and irrelevant. Excluded and jealous. Yet, we also cannot help but maintain that first touch of pride we experienced upon learning of life’s great journey out into the universe. Despite ourselves, we regard those far-off rings affectionately. We wish them well.” One of these tales – about the delicious bastrom, which becomes even more delicious when frightened or in pain (can you tell where this is going?) – is available online at JMWW, thank whatever. As much as I tried to anticipate what kind of critters would crop up once I read a few sections, the directions these essays go constantly surprise and, while fanciful, again, left me laughing, or shaking my head in dismayed agreement.
But it goes further, I think. The bastrom is perhaps about addiction – or maybe just the need of people to feel something, anything, no matter what the cost; pain is preferable to numbness. The dawson is about the impossibility of love. The kessel is about making the most of what time we have, whether it’s 70 years or four one-hundred-millionths of a second. The lasar is about war. And the sonitum affects me most of all, the organisms that “increase in size when confronted with noise” because I connect it to writing:
…[H]uman thought is not unlike the sonita in the sense that, once agitated, it grow and grows. Stirred by discourse, thought begins to swell…..
Can you see it yet, in the dish? Keep shouting.
You bet I will.