Bang Crunch: Stories
Neil Smith
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Buy *Bang Crunch: Stories* by Neil Smith online

Bang Crunch: Stories
Neil Smith
Vintage Contemporaries
256 pages
January 2008
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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The eight stories and single novella in this very winsome debut are entertaining and whimsical – which can be either a fault or a strength, depending upon the piece. Among the short stories, the strongest are those whose material lends itself to a whimsical tone. For instance, take the title story, a clever piece about an eight-year-old girl (named for an Edward Gorey character) who learns that she is suffering from “Fred Hoyle syndrome, a rare disease that, although it boosts your brainpower exponentially, has begun aging you a month a day so that on the way home you need to stop at the drugstore for panty shields and antiperspirant.” Her disease progresses until soon she has become physically elderly. Then her aging takes a sharp turn in the reverse direction: “The contraction is much faster than the expansion. You de-age a year a day.” Big Bang, Big Crunch: Bang Crunch. A little twee? You bet. But it’s only unbearable in summary. In fact the story is a delicious romp, thanks to energetic writing like this:

Soon school ends. In the past months you’ve skipped grades eight times and coincidentally in every grade a big-boned girl briefly befriended you only to mock you later, saying for example that your hair, once honey blond, had gone mousey with age. In the summertime your mum quits her job as postmistress and becomes your impresario, passing you off as a genius diviner to the neighbors, who line up at your bedroom door for a consultation. Ask her anything, your mum says. Also: no personal cheques. What they ask about is themselves, like will they ever lose weight, take a lover, find happiness, buy a BMW, confront their fathers, win the snooker playoff, and these are questions you can’t answer but you feign clairvoyance, tilting your head pensively.
Something similar could be said for “Extremities,” a story that concerns the adventures of a pair of calfskin gloves and a severed foot. This kind of thing is always fun, and it’s a pleasure to read; unfortunately, Smith uses this whimsical tone and adds cartoonish touches even when it appears that he’s actually trying to move the reader emotionally. The opening story, “Isolettes,” provides perhaps the most extreme example of this tendency. It’s the story of a woman who gives premature birth, and when the baby dies, it comes as no surprise. But most of the details leading up to this trauma are so silly and are presented in such a lighthearted way that they badly undercut the potential power of the ending: the woman has a goofy name; the baby shower is held first in a theater (doing a production of Les parapluies de Cherbourg), then in a strip club called Wet, where the strippers take showers onstage; a fellow mother has a business raising “goldendoodles,” which is “a mix of golden retriever and poodle”; and it all starts when she becomes pregnant by a platonic friend – that’s right, they have no sex. Instead, he takes a blue espresso cup into her bathroom and brings it out, once he’s brought it off. After a setup like this, the final, somber page of the piece feels like a forced epiphany, a last-ditch effort to end the story in a moving way. Several other stories, in particular “Scrapbook” (which concerns the aftermath of a school shooting), are a little exasperating in the same manner, although to a much lesser degree than the opening piece.

That criticism must be made, but it also should be said that the most important aspect of these stories, including “Isolettes,” is Smith’s use of language, which is always playful and compelling, if often a bit oddly Gallic. A bilingual native Montrealer, he has said that he “lives and works in French,” and the influence of the French language upon his writing in English is manifest; however, as this influence is subtle and is most noticeable in his overall sense of rhythm; no quotation here can adequately demonstrate it. At times, I felt that I was reading a very good but very close to word-for-word translation from French.

The last piece in the book is a novella called “Jaybird,” and it is interesting to see how Smith’s penchant for cartoonish detail plays out in a longer fiction. It turns out that Smith is better in the longer form, and it provides a very strong finish to the collection. In fact, it is one of those novellas that makes you regret how rarely they appear in the literary magazines. In the shorter pieces, whatever Smith’s material, however entertaining his language, his characters never really elicit sympathy, to say nothing of empathy. Whatever pathos the material may have had is generally overwhelmed by the overall playfulness. But as I read “Jaybird,” I gradually realized that for once, I cared about these people. There is enough surrounding matter and enough character development that the humorous details provide comic relief instead of dominating the piece. Smith says that he’s working on a novel now, and we can look forward to seeing what he’ll be able to do with an even larger canvas. In the meantime, check out Bang Crunch: Stories – you won’t be disappointed.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Jeremy Hatch, 2008

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