“I found this photograph / underneath the broken picture glass.” So begins “Photograph,” a 1993 song written and performed by R.E.M. and Natalie Merchant that describes the sensation of coming across an old portrait and trying to intuit something truthful about the feelings and experiences churning behind the frozen expression. “A big smile for the camera, / How did she know?” sings Michael Stipe, evoking the odd mixture of lived history and voyeuristic perplexity inherent in thumbing through somebody else’s treasured mementoes, along with the temptation to project ourselves into the lives of others.
The tension between the far away and the familiar that manifests in the Rorschach-test nature of old snapshots serves as a unifying conceit for Cary Fagan’s new collection, The Old World and Other Stories, which features 35 pieces of varying length and quality, each associated with a real-world black-and-white photograph. In the preface, the author explains that these artifacts somehow “found their way” to him, but he doesn’t fully outline his curatorial methodology; instead, he tries to clarify his artistic intentions. “I have given them stories,” Fagan writes, “to replace the ones they have lost. … I imagine them belonging to one history, found in an album that might belong to any of us.”
It’s a solid idea for a collection, one which The Old World bears out effectively, if not always as ingeniously as a reader might desire. The same thing that’s so promising about Fagan’s project – the excitement of yoking a still image to an active, breathing narrative and exploring how far it wanders from its original, static incarnation – is paradoxically the book’s most salient limitation. There’s something overly careful and conscientious in the way that Fagan forges the links between some of the stories and their inspirations, as in
“Invisible,” which works laboriously to account for an impassive matrimonial shot.
The best entries are the ones that take the wildest formal and stylistic liberties, like “Who I’ve Come For,” which uses a bizarre shot of a puppet show to set up a one-act play with a wicked extra-diegetic punchline, or the slyly politicized “Subversion,” which fills out the backstory of an unsmiling goody two-shoes. Too often, though, Fagan finds himself stranded somewhere between stringent minimalism and sentimentality, erring on the side of the latter often enough to make this frequently clever and funny experiment in storytelling feel soft at its core.
There’s no such pudginess on the hard, gleaming bones of Paul Carlucci’s second collection. A Plea for Constant Motion is not technically genre fiction, though it occasionally works up the same gnawing terror as a great horror novel. Despite the theatrical organization of the 12 short stories here – two “acts” made up of multiple tales with a long “intermission” between them – there is no overbearing conceptual framework; while a careful reader will spot connections and correspondences between the vignettes, each one stands firmly and defiantly apart from its fellows.
The tone is set early on with “My New Best Friend in Exile,” in which a suburbanite discovers that his neighbour is hiding something unsettling in his basement (a scenario that coincidentally also appears in the enjoyably nasty story “Old Rufus” in Fagan’s collection). The harmony that Carlucci achieves between interiorized, first-person character study, pulp-novel shock effects, and some larger, insidious cultural metaphor is impressive, and anticipates further balancing acts to come, including the spectacular centerpiece, “Dream of a Better Self,” with its daringly off-centre vision of widespread social collapse. If there is a key for unlocking A Plea for Constant Motion, it’s surely in this fable of people lying restlessly in the beds they’ve (un)made for themselves; I’m hard pressed to think of a line that more perfectly sums up a widespread present-tense North American (i.e. Trump-era) mindset than “everything was ruined, because too many people dreamed that it should be.”
Elsewhere, A Plea For Constant Motion tackles childhood trauma, sexual abuse, randomized acts of violence, and the manifold varieties of grief and mourning (sketched with clinical precision in the affecting, dark dinner-party-of-the-soul selection “Even Still”). There is, perhaps, something repetitive, if not monotonous, about the harshness of Carlucci’s universe, and at least one of the final stories – the safari-themed “Hippos” – ventures into hectoring social commentary. But it’s Carlucci’s prerogative to determine the aim and trajectory
of his writing, and if the constant motion he creates takes the form of a descent, it’s to his credit that it cuts, sharp and clean, right down to the marrow.