As much as folks might love the tidy endings and banal platitudes of TV and movies, in real life the binaries of what’s good and bad, who wins and who loses, breaks down in ways unimaginable if you’ve only earned your imagination from the screen. For the many who travel out to the edge of this great continent for a chance at that good life, dreams don’t always come true; the reality of the California we know from cinema doesn’t exactly track with real life. The dissolution of this hard line between winning and losing, myth and reality (and even life versus death) is where Robert Glick’s new short story collection, Two Californias from C&R Press, finds its narrative focus.
In the first story of Robert Glick’s Two Californias, “In the Room / Memory is / White”, the reader is welcomed into the Mulhouse family home as their idyllic suburban existence falls apart. Mr. Mulhouse is having an affair. Mrs. Mulhouse is pregnant with an unwanted child. And the young Jacob Mulhouse, a reticent boy, is slowly shrinking from the carnage.
During an argument, Mrs. Mulhouse says to her husband, “I’d rather have married a screamer, than a man who shrinks from passion like a dog from an electric fence.” Like many of the characters in Two Californias, Mrs. Mulhouse is saying more than she realizes. The focus of the story, for the most part, is on Jacob, who hides away in cubby holes and in the jacuzzi with the cover on to escape the anger leaping like alternating current between his parents. Does Mrs. Mulhouse realize that Jacob resembles the shrinking dog of her metaphor? And that what’s left unspoken — the affair, the unexpected pregnancy, Jacob’s destruction of the family television and his desire to make it right by buying a white elephant for his mother — is what threatens the family order? While Mrs. Mulhouse is reaching for the answers, the deep wounds grow fouler.
“In the Room” uses a peculiar time signature. The dramatic focus begins in the middle of the story, with everything leading up to it filling in the emotional backspace. While Robert’s treatment of the characters here is primarily realistic — you could be lulled momentarily into the feeling you’re in Carver-esque territory— the modular storytelling methods used throughout the collection experiments with linearity and form. The affair of Dr. Mulhouse, the unexpected pregnancy of Mrs. Mulhouse, and the anxiety of their young boy Jacob is developed piecemeal, like the reassembling of a torn family portrait. In a way, this modular storytelling technique is a formal representation of the dissolution of the binary between past and present and the decay of realistic, linear narratives, creating anchors that push and pull the reader in opposing directions much in the way the characters are similarly between two places at once (exposed and hiding, caring and not).
The wreck of a boat in the story “Mermaid Anatomy” continues the exploration of the hidden and the found. Lena, the mysterious love interest of the story, leads the men in her life — the narrator and her pseudo boyfriend, Benny — into the hull of a ship to find artifacts she’s placed there in the dark. Lena instills these objects with special ideological weight, suggesting in not so many words that these objects will create an aura (in the Benjaminian sense) on which the characters can feast upon. The artifacts will become “adventure” and “unknowing”, held and commanded. They will become the food for an evolution: that into a person of interest.
Late in the story Lena leads the narrator to a pier to cut the head off a mermaid statue. Once the head is sawed off and gifted by the narrator to Lena, the head becomes disgusting, a violent portend of possible futures. The artifact loses its power and failing to change the characters, is discarded. Here we see Robert working on declawing the power of myths and metaphors, working on us through complex syntax that seems to unlanguage reality not with flashy excess, but with a deep urgency, to expose through unbalancing how important stable reality — the concrete of the now — truly is. Here, like in “In the Room / Memory is / White”, objects are imagined to holds powers to cure, but fail to deliver.
“Release” and “Hotel Grand Abyss” are two connected stories that follow the protagonist Johnny, a scholar of zombie film and literature. Like in “Mermaid Anatomy”, both stories focus on mythologies of a sort, with Johnny repeatedly repurposing the decay of zombie flesh and the mythology of zombie lore to relate to his present circumstances. In “Release”, Johnny is expecting that arriving at his grandmother’s sickbed will provide her the permission she needs to abscond the mortal plane. In Hotel, the deterioration of his father’s mental capabilities prompts many comparisons to zombie lore as his father, unable to perform the simplest tasks, shuffles about and moans and cries for a different kind of release.
In “Hotel”, Johnny comments that,
Zombies, like other pop-culture phenomenon, are mutable, easily assimilated. It’s not that they lose their ideological weight, but their ideological time. For a while, we can use zombies to discuss more important topics; and then, when some South Korean company releases the first inflatable zombie sex dolls, their moment is gone.
For Johnny, in the same way that zombies lose their power when the cultural moment moves to the “practical” (capital), the zombification of his dad has reified the zombie in a way that makes the metaphor break down. Before reification there was a possibility of rebirth in the decay, or a rekindling of familial love. But in the case of his father, the decay is permanent. Johnny is forced to move on from the metaphor, to release the crutch he’s relied upon for so long. In that, there’s release, though grief lumbers on long after the flesh has decayed beyond recognition. His father will not be coming back.
“K/S”, the shortest story of the collection, pop culture references are also used as a way to deflect the heavy emotional turmoil of decay. Dizzy, the protagonist of the story, has a lesion. His flesh is marked by an opportunistic infection. HIV. RJ, Dizzy’s roommate, points out that the lesion is shaped like the giant space amoeba from an episode of the original Star Trek. When Dizzy’s describes the Star Trek amoeba as evil, RJ disagrees.
“Not evil,” says RJ, “just misunderstood.”
And here, I think, is where the heart of the collection lies. We want to point to decay as something innately bad. In some situations, it is. But at times there’s also opportunity in decay. Glick, through stories that span decades, is working towards an understanding of those opportunities through deep, surgical explorations of private dramas and how people tackle them, and how the solutions to personal failures and the failures of the body are elusive, butting against platitudes and the promises of myth. More importantly he’s exploring how in this grappling there’s a new way forward. It is in the ruin that we learn the real lessons of life. It is in destruction that we finally take command.
Daniel J. Cecil received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Washington. His work has appeared in Bookslut, the Heavy Feather Review, HTML Giant, the Plant, Rock and Sling, Miracle Monocle, and the Stranger, among others. Daniel’s writing has been nominated for a Pushcart prize, and received the support of several residencies. Learn more at: www.writerdanieljcecil.com