Calling something a “big short story collection” is a bit of a contradiction in terms, and yet, some collections are bigger than others. And though short stories take less time to read than novels, the amount of attention you have to pay to each piece can sometimes paradoxically involve your emotions and attention more than a novel. Because of this, a “big” short story collection can overshadow a lesser known, or independent, short story collection, making it known only to literary insiders. Luckily, I’m here to correct that about The Aversive Clause, by B.C. Edwards, which is a small short story collection that feels pretty big.
Every year, Black Lawrence Press awards the Hudson Prize, which means they select one short story collection or one poetry collection to publish in the following year. In 2011, B.C. Edwards was short-listed for both. The Aversive Clause is the short story collection and a poetry collection, also by him, is forthcoming. (Basically he came in second to himself in this particular book contest.) Edwards is a bit of a writer-of-all-trades, having dabbled in performance through live storytelling and working for the Upright Citizens Brigade. (Full disclosure, Edwards and I have performed together on the same storytelling bill, and then taken a subway ride home where we spoke of nothing but Doctor Who.)
Like a cross between Etgar Keret and Harlan Ellison, Edwards has an affinity for the fantastic, but an even greater proficiency for being really readable. The prose here isn’t exactly fancy, but it is precise and lovely which, if I knew anything about poetry, would lead me to conclude poet/prose writer hybrids have their command of words down better than anyone. This is the kind of book where you think you’ll hunt and peck throughout the collection, seeing which titles in the table of contents catch your eye, but once you start in on the first story, you just read them all straight through.
But the stars of the collection are the stories with a genre angle to them. The funniest is without a doubt “The City of God is Your Town, America…If You Make an Effort!” In it, God reveals himself to the world and decides to run for president of the United States. Told from the point of view of a collective “we,” the story is lacking in real explanations for how all of this goes down, but expounds—hilariously—on some the implications. At some point the people start worrying about God’s huge and unfair lead in the polls and decide to run someone against him, a regular guy named Terry Stevens. From the story:
Our first slogan, God Created Terry Stevens in his image, so what’s the difference really? It didn’t get us very far. God was polling around the high nineties with a margin of error that shot him up to an impossible 105% of the population. But we kept on running the circuit. Hitting all the right spots, like we thought we knew how to give the country a back-run.
Around this time God and Stevens started talking on the phone most nights. God would call Stevens on his cell. Even if the phone was on silent or off or the battery removed, it would still ring and God had his own special ring so Stevens would know it was him and Stevens would be compelled to answer.
And God would be a dick most of the time.
This story is emblematic of the way these premises tend to go. You think to yourself, sure, why wouldn’t there be a story about this thing? And then you realize: YES, this is exactly the way a story about this specific thing should go. In “Doppelgangers Local 525” the notion of professionally doppelganging is explored in amusing and tragic detail. (This story oddly dovetails nicely with the themes of disguise in Leos Carax’s recent film Holy Motors. I’d recommend pairing both together, like wine with cheese.) In this universe, however, many of the people the professional doppelgangers are meant to be dopplegangers of no longer exist, meaning, the doppelgangers are just sort of hanging out. The profession has been around for a long time; the beginning of time in fact. From the story:
Since old times there have been crowds, and we were always there to make them interesting. Back when much hairier version of ourselves were figuring out how to roll a wheel down a hill, there were hairy rubberneckers and fuzzy-by-standers marveling at the invention, cheering at its success. Hairy doppelganger too, the whole lot. I don’t think anyone knows when it started or why, but we’re up there with prostitutes in terms of longevity. The world needs its populations to notice each other. That’s what we do, more or less. Draw attention to where attention needs to be drawn.
The stories in The Aversive Clause draw your attention all over the place, creatively, and delightfully so. If you think the premise of a zombie-romance ala Warm Bodies sounds exciting, wait until you read this book’s gay zombie story “Sweetness!” These stories are loaded with high-concept imagination, but carry real weight and angst in their sentences. You might be grinning while reading these stories, but they’ll stick with you long after you close the book.
The Aversive Clause releases Feburary 12 from Black Lawrence Press.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.