Monday, October 11, 2010

Book Review: In The Mean Time by Paul Tremblay

When it comes to adult fiction, one prevalent school of thought is to trust the reader, that authors shouldn’t explain everything in exposition, and that endings shouldn’t be didactic. That’s a concept that’s easy to preach but difficult to implement. In fact, when a reader--or writer--complains that you shouldn’t read the last line of a story because it spoils the ending, the narrative is most likely suffering from the aforementioned problem.

The strength and uniqueness of Paul Tremblay’s fiction is that he successfully pulls off this writing recommendation. Not one story in In The Mean Time is condescending and most of the time, I had to carefully reread Tremblay’s prose to fully understand the implications. Over the course of reading the collection, I tweeted that the book was “subtle and spooky and fantastic” and that easily sums up the kind of stories that can be found here. That’s no easy task, especially considering the range of stories present here, whether it’s flash fiction or something as experimental as “The Blog at the End of the World”.

In a certain way, it’s understandable why Tremblay’s prose is the exception rather than the norm. It’s fiction that you can’t easily breeze through but requires you to pause, read between the lines, and assess what’s truly going on. If you have the attention span of a goldfish (admittedly I’m one of them), you’ll miss out on a lot of crucial details. The major difference between Hollywood horror (and some mainstream horror for that matter) and this collection is that the former spells it out for you, and manifests itself in tropes like monsters, murderers, and overt mysteries. With Tremblay, there’s no dramatic music to clue you in that this is the part where you’re supposed to scream. In fact, most of the text is a gradual revelation and it’s only in retrospect that you come to realize hey, this is genuinely creepy stuff. Let me quote the last lines of the opening story, “The Teacher”:

"No. I’m staying where I am. I’m the baseball pitch that stops before home. I’m an empty notebook. I’m half the distance to the wall. I’m the video with an ending that I won’t ever watch."
Taken out of context, it makes no absolute sense (and why I can easily quote it in this review). There is no “big reveal”, no literal monster lurking in the background. If you missed out on what was wrong in the story, simply rereading the last paragraph won’t give you the answers. Within the framework of the story, however, this is a fitting ending. Why does the protagonist compare herself to the baseball pitch, the notebook, the wall, and the video? Tremblay never explicitly tells us but relies on showing us these facts. It’s up to the reader to piece everything and works with our zeitgeist.

Most of the stories here are subtle and implicit, especially my favorites like “The Two-Headed Girl” and “There’s No Light Between Floors”. Perhaps my one complaint is that because a lot of Tremblay’s fiction comes out as strong and potent, when he does attempt something different and mundane, it’s underwhelming. Such is the case with “The Strange Case of Nicholas Thomas: An Excerpt from A History of the Longesian Library” which uses a familiar horror trope, although the characterization remains as detailed as his other stories.

Considering the quality of Tremblay’s short fiction, a collection like In The Mean Time is long overdue. There are a handful of authors which I consider are the “writer’s writer”: Jeffrey Ford, Jeff VanderMeer, Kij Johnson, Mary Robinette Kowal. Paul Tremblay easily belongs to that list, and this book proves it.

1 comment:

Naomi Johnson said...

I've only just finished the first story in this collection, 'The Teacher,' and I think it's brilliant. You have beautifully articulated the reasons.