The core puzzle, for all of us, is what ignites a human being to hate feverishly, kill wantonly in huge numbers, revel in genocide and final solutions – that is unanswerable.
The concept of an 'unanswerable' question lies at the core of many of the short stories collected in Down to a Sunless Sea. Characters grapple with the unanswerable questions of their own life in ways that are sometimes understandable and sometimes angry, using dialogue, physical observation and stream-of-consciousness to shape their whole into manageable portions. Freese's collection occasionally strays into obtuse ramblings and on rare occasions is somewhat unsatisfactory in the way it fails to accurately plumb a character's depths, but on the whole Down to a Sunless Sea is a strong collection of short stories with the coherent theme of understanding one's self as a way of understanding one's environment.
- From the story “Unanswerable” by Mathias B. Freese
Characters by and large are very aware of themselves, at the expense of a lack of understanding of others. An example of this: 'As he walked he was stressed by a need to scratch the back of his right foot above the edge of the shoe.' This is deep, introspective, obsessive awareness of self at the expense of others. A technique such as this is effective only when the character at the heart of the story is interesting; happily, nearly all of Freese's narrators are interesting people, sometimes for their quirks and sometimes for their personalities or situations. “I'll Make it, I Think” is about a young man who remains remarkably calm even though he has, as we are repeatedly told, a deformed arm and leg and a horrible drool when he speaks. His story, though it should be filled with the difficulty of living with such challenges, instead becomes something farcical because of his matter-of-fact and aggressive manner of narration. 'I'm not hurting anyone,' he tells us. 'So what if my morning shorts are sticky. I'm a good person.' The narrator here has many reasons to moan but instead concentrates on living. This is a solid story and strong.
Along with “Echo”, the brief “Herbie” is perhaps the strongest story of the collection. It involves a young child's attempts to start a weekend shoe-shining business with his friend. Herbie's father is against his son's desire, with the friction between the two providing the lubrication of the story. The father is the villain of the story, though it is interesting to note that Freese has chosen a more daring route by making Herbie himself somewhat unpleasant and not exactly likeable, either. In this, more than any other story, the characters rise above type and become people interacting with one another - though the story is not without its quirks. Once, when Herbie and his father are arguing at the dinner table, Herbie's father approaches and yells at his son, prompting Herbie to observe that 'The pig mist had mixed with his bile and the stench was unbearable'. Pig mist? I'm not certain that anyone eating a pork chop has ever produced 'pig mist.' These failings are minor and easily overlooked, but for all that, they jar.
“Echo” is the story of a lopsided friendship, with one giving more than the other. This story is very slim on plot but strong on characterisation and empathy. Who hasn't had a friend who seems to put in less effort than you? Who hasn't experienced the slow, faultless fade of friendship over months and years of inaction and forgetting? Freese is tender with both Jon and David, and Jon's tendency to break relationships that come too close is wholly believable and sympathetic. Unlike “Herbie”, which is admirable because of its bluster and aggression, “Echo” forms part of that slice-of-life writing which, when it works, can be so touching in its simplicity and honesty.
Freese's writing is peppered with metaphors and similes, most of which work, though it seems at times as though he has stretched slightly beyond his reach. A sentence that concludes 'I often thought of him with a perennial cloud about his head' accurately captures the essence of character that was built during the preceding paragraphs, but the effect is ruined when Freese continues with 'shrouded like some watery planet, in storm and methane gas.' The metaphor has been taken too far, and the desired understanding has lapsed. These quibbles are minor, but they are rife throughout the stories, which somewhat tarnish the generally bright metal of Freese's writing.
As a whole, Freese's stories can be seen as a narrator engaging in a brief examination of a specific period in his life. The questions of 'why' is strong in each piece, even if it is not explicitly asked by the narrator. Why has this happened to me? Why have I chosen this life? Why are my parents this way? Why? Questions we all ask ourselves. Wisely, Freese often chooses not to answer the question of why, and it is to his credit that he avoids making his characters smarter than everyone else by having glib responses to difficult problems. No, Freese's characters grapple with problems the way people grapple with problems. Some of them are capable of fumbling in the direction of an answer, but none provide a coherent, rational explanation of their individual why. Which makes sense, really.