by Randy F. Nelson
Genre: Short Fiction
Published by University of Georgia Press
Date of Publication: October 1st 2006
*Winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award
The opinion of your average, modern-day reader is that the short story is dead. It had its last hurrah, and has ridden off into the sunset. Most people today prefer novels that are simply that, "Novel". A little flash, a little pomp, and very little thought (read: Twilight). However, though the form has, admittedly, experienced a decline over the past few decades, it is anything but dead, and it is authors like Randy F. Nelson that are keeping it alive.
Nelson's collection, The Imaginary Lives Of Mechanical Men, looks (from its cover photo and small size) like it's going to be some fluffy piece of Sci-Fi that might entertain you for a few hours. Within pages of diving in, you'll forget you ever thought that.
The collection is broken into four sections, each containing its own assortment of individual stories. These sections, as well assembled and tightly knit as they are, could almost function as books on their own.
I need to make a note here. No two stories are alike, which is part of what I like so much about Nelson's writing; he's not formulaic. He doesn't pick a theme and stick to that with almost religious fervor, which sadly is the failing of many short fiction authors working today. They try to hammer unity into their stories, instead of letting it flow from the narrative. Each of Nelson's stories is its own little world, self-contained and uninformed by the ones surrounding it. Having said that, the book keeps an amazing synergy throughout. As you read, it somehow makes perfect sense to move from a story about an emotionless boy with a talking dog to one of a Japanese magician who's magic is food.
The first story, "Mechanical Men", stands on its own, and serves nicely as a kind of an introduction, rather than a traditional forward. It is the story of an ape research facility, testing advanced neurological implants, that has had a tragedy occur, and is trying to find out what happened without jeopardizing their research. The story has you thinking throughout, despite the fantastical elements, about just how realistic the narrative is, how comparable to the attitude of today's scientific community (progress at any cost). Add in a little mystery, and it is the perfect way to start off.
After this is the first section, titled They Have Replaceable Valves And Filters. This contains five stories. "The Cave" is the tale of a mountain girl and a man trapped in a collapsed cave, and the bond that forms between them as everyone on the surface starts to come unglued. "Here's A Shot Of Us At The Grand Canyon" tells of a child with no words for what he's feeling, parents who have no idea what to do for him (and can't be bothered to try), and the talking dog they get to try to bring him out of his shell.
Three more stories finish the first section. "Food Is Fuel", about a writer trying to connect with his daughter on his deathbed through stories that might or might not be fiction; "Abduction", about a tabloid writer and an alien abductee; and "The Guardian", about a flower delivery boy and the man-child, Elrod Weiss, who works with him.
The stories in this group impart an amazing sense of loss, lost love, lost chances, lost hope, but also a sense that, as the saying goes, "Tis better to have loved and lost."
The next section, The Ticking And Tocking Of Their Hearts, contains four stories. "Cutters" is the story of a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist, and the snake-handling, tongue-speaking, god-fearing people who were her big break. "Breaker" tells of a maritime lawyer sent to the third world to shut down a US boatbreaking (salvage) operation who gets a lot more than he bargained for. "River Story" is about a salvager with a strange illness, who takes a job (against his better judgement) from an unusual client. Finally, "In The Picking Room" is about a roll picker in a failing denim plant.
As a whole, Ticking And Tocking is about people who have somehow lost control of their own lives, and how they cope (or refuse to cope) while outside forces are taking over their lives. Nelson has really given us a sense of quiet desperation here, and he keeps us moving much like his characters, with the hope that things will turn up soon.
The third section, Two Who Drowned, has only two stories, "Refiner's Fire" and "Pulp Life". "Refiner's Fire" is about a black man living on the black side of the tracks, an intellectual who teaches at the university. As the narrator puts it, "The first black man at Baxter College who doesn't push or pull something." When faced with the demands of his neighbors and a tragedy he feels responsible for, he burns his books.
"Pulp Life" was, without question, my favorite story of the whole collection. The narrator is a young woman, trying to repent for an unforgivable mistake, and finding solace in old pulp magazines (such as "Weird Tales") and in collecting their cover art.
These two stories, at their core are about forgiving yourself and taking back the control you have lost, and they lead in perfectly to the final section, One Who Got Away, and its single story, "Escape".
"Escape" is two men in the wilderness, hunting for an escaped convict, who is himself hunting. Not for escape, but for repentance and forgiveness. After finding him in an unlikely place and in an unlikely state, the three are caught in a snowstorm, hours from their vehicle. How they conduct themselves, towards each other and towards the convict, deteriorates and reverses as the story and their journey progress. Without giving too much away, in the end, this is also a tale of forgiveness, and is a great finale to the book.
So, why so many more stories of heartbreak, loss, and helplessness than those of forgiveness and solace? In this reviewers opinion, Nelson was trying to remind us of a simple fact; Sometimes, it's easier to forgive ourselves, take back control, and move on, than it is to spend our lives pining for what could have been.
4.5 out of 5