Sunday, May 31, 2015

Austin Bunn, The Brink (Harper Perennial, 2015)

The arrival of Austin Bunn’s debut book of short stories, The Brink, is certainly well-timed. We’re living in an era of history that feels like it’s always already post-apocalyptic, and that’s exactly what the tightly woven yet loosely worn ten stories in this ambitious and wide-ranging collection are all about. On the book’s opening page, we meet a precocious seventh-grader named Sam, for whom “nuclear holocaust is the only thing worth thinking about,” an obsession with extremity and obliteration that permeates Austin Bunn’s stories, without ever feeling inescapably dark or too heavy-handed. They’re doomsday tales for a generation that grew up training itself, after all, to view doomsday scenarios from a consciously ironic stance.

In addition to being a fiction writer, Bunn is a playwright and filmmaker who wrote the screenplay for 2013’s Kill Your Darlings, starring Daniel Radcliffe as a young Allen Ginsberg. Each story in The Brink has a cinematic sweep and depth; it’s clear that they were written with a filmmaker’s eye, and it’s easy to read them with a moviegoer’s imagination. Sometimes I was reminded of individual films. For instance, “The End of the Age Is Upon Us,” told from the perspective of a young man who’s involved in a cult, recalled the harrowing edginess of 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. Bunn’s approach to inhabiting his narrator’s sad and brainwashed vision of the world is fully believable and invested throughout.

At times the momentum of the stories reminded me of Alice Munro, who in her best pieces leads her readers to the brink, dangles us over the edge, and then yanks us back up to safety, but never leaving us unchanged after a glimpse of the dangers below. It’s strange to think, therefore, that I also found Bunn’s storytelling style reminiscent of someone like the late John Hughes, whose brilliant and seemingly timeless mid-80s teen romantic comedies always struck the right balance of drama and sentimentality. A number of these stories show a clear desire to be neatly resolved and self-contained, even in terms of structure, while others end openly or abruptly.

A quality that feels new to fiction, at least for me, is the simulated alternative game-world called the Also in the story titled “Griefer.” The acceleration and velocity of language that Bunn taps into when the central character launches himself into the kinetic strata of the game — in stark contrast to his humdrum everyday life with his wife in their apartment — is similar to the Beat cadences of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, a world drawn with words that zing and dance around on the page: “I zoomed to the edge of the gray-green butte. Below me, the city stretched out on five peninsulas into the ocean, a hand on a mirror. Hundreds of players hived at one of the city terminals. The Also’s composer, a nineteen-year-old kid who made the game sound like a nail salon, was having a live farewell jam. If I boosted my speakers, I could just perceive the twee.”

My favorite story in the collection, and the one that seems most accomplished and realized, is “Ledge.” Set in the age of Christopher Columbus, it’s a seafaring tale about reaching the edge of the Flat Earth, and finding out what’s beyond the precipice. More than mere fantasy, the story is firmly rooted in the long-standing tradition of magical realism, and as such, its tone and dynamic are inherited most directly from Gabriel García Márquez. His own seafaring tales, like “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” “The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship,” and “The Sea of Lost Time,” bear an immediate relation to “Ledge,” and Bunn’s story aspires to be as genuinely good as those are.

Narrated by a young man from Seville, who documents the sea journey in his ledger with a quill, it’s one of several stories in the collection (along with “Hazard 9” and “Curious Father”) that unassumingly threads in a gay storyline. In “Ledge” that subplot is even more seamless and unspoken, integrated into the story’s relationships, because anything more demonstrative than that would be anachronistic. The device is both successful and moving, as is the story’s main conceit, of an afterworld that lies beyond the ledge: “Death is the tyranny. To conquer the ledge was a conquest over this. The greed of time.”

The Brink’s virtuosic, trademark aura is situated between the cyberpunk avatars of “Griefer” and the exploration-era atmospherics of “Ledge.” I’d call it Steampunk Lite, and I don’t mean Lite in the sense of hollow imitation. I mean it in the sense that these stories, though obviously influenced by the genre of science fiction, don’t stop there. They’re always totally literary in concept, execution, and scope, which is also what makes them authentic. Their language engages and never shies away from the playful complexity of metaphor. A group of nerdy school kids running in a game rushes around in “a vortex of spaz.” The summit of a mountain looks like “a kneecap rising out of a bath,” and a helicopter landing on bare ground “felt like a pit stop on a hot plate.”

In terms of characters, what all of these stories share is their focus on outsiders. The catalysts for outsiderdom throughout the book are various and diverse: unhappy marriages, infidelity, sheer geekiness, teenage pregnancy and abortion, sexual difference, facial disfigurement following a car crash, assembling an entire battalion of misfits. These are stories about loneliness that have the power to make their readers less lonely.