Monday, February 23, 2009

Book/Magazine Review: We Never Talk About My Brother by Peter S. Beagle

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book/magazine reviews.

Of course I've heard of Peter S. Beagle. Who hasn't? But the question off the top of my head is that in this age where new trends such as the New Weird or Interstitial Fiction have entered the fray, is Beagle's prose still up to par? We Never Talk About My Brother collects the author's newest short stories and this book allays those fears. In fact, this is some of the best short fiction I've read in quite some time and Beagle has only improved with time.

Of the nine stories that are included in this collection, seven of them truly stand out. For the most part, the strength of Beagle is his characters, especially their dialogue. In "The Stickball Witch" for example, there can be no doubt that the narrator is but a boy, and this reinforces the belief in the game of stickball or the supposed witch who is their neighbor. Or in "Spook" where amidst a phantom haunting an apartment, it is the banter between two Jews that hooks us to the setting and propels the narrative. And perhaps Beagle is at his best when he's tackling contemporary fantasy, fantasy that's urban even before "urban fantasy" became a popular marketing label. Maybe that's why "The Tale of Junko and Sayuri" or "King Pelles the Sure" aren't as memorable for me. They're competent stories, no doubt, but it lacks that extra oomph to deliver the coup de grace. There's a certain distance in my reading of the former story. However, "By Moonlight" and "Chandail" clearly shows Beagle more than capable of writing compelling second-world fantasy and they would easily have been my favorites if not for the other equally excellent stories in this collection.

"Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel" is the opening story and right from the outset, the story reels you in. For me, this is one of the best examples of how good dialogue carries the story. Amidst the preposterousness of an angel suddenly appearing in your midst offering itself as a muse, the painter Uncle Chaim dismisses it in able to concentrate better on his current model. Uncle Chaim is your grumpy uncle, practical but dedicated to his work and this is what resonates rather than the other fantastical elements of the piece. For me this is the Beagle template and what makes many of the other stories in this book succeed.

The titular piece is "We Never Talk About My Brother" and it's equally impressive. While Beagle excels in dialogue as well as characterization (or if any distinction should be made between the two), it is more of the latter that makes this a rich and enjoyable read. The author successfully summons an aura of a small-town family and we are anchored by the all-too sympathetic narrator. He's the likable Joe, not without flaws but definitely someone we can relate to. And while this could have been the backdrop for a battle of epic proportions, it all boils down to a simple brawl for the most personal of reasons. One's humanity is written all over this short story.

This isn't the first time I read "The Last and Only, or, Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French" and I praised it back in Eclipse One. I'll praise it again and this is easily for me the best story in the book. Surprisingly, this doesn't quite follow your Beagle template. This is actually a layered story and new elements are discovered as one re-reads it. It initially starts out like a fanciful fairy tale yet it spirals into something big and encapsulating, all the while we're tethered by the plight of its human characters. This is certainly fuel for post-colonialism readers but I appreciated the fact that this is not only the story of Mr. Moscowitz but that of his wife.

What We Never Talk About My Brother might lack in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality. Seven of the stories as I said before are striking and you can compare them to any other contemporary short fiction and they'll hold their ground, if not outright blast away the competition. Beagle's writing has ripened with time and if there's any doubt, one only needs to pick up a copy of this collection.

No comments: