The characters in these stylistically disparate stories grapple with tense relationships, falsehoods, and questions of right and wrong.
Emmons’ first collection of short stories follows two earlier novels (Prescription for a Superior Existence, 2008, etc.) and covers a lot of ground: readers will find everything from realistic works to a stylized retelling of a nursery rhyme. The title story follows a game designer named Bernard as he struggles to untangle bonds both romantic and familial. Its title hangs over the proceedings, just as the book’s title does over all 12 stories contained within. It’s a wise choice, adding an extra dimension to these assorted narratives. “Agape,” which closes the book, deals specifically with the aftereffects of a moral decision that may have backfired on its central character, and it attains a greater power given its place in the book. Emmons is at his most memorable when he narrows in on sharp satirical details: that one character in the title story “used to play in a reggae band she liked, Natty Dresden,” for example. But sometimes the blend of realism and the fantastic doesn’t work as well. As its title suggests, “Humphrey Dempsey” has echoes of the story of Humpty Dumpty but throws in an abundance of court intrigue and political reform. “BANG” handles a similar sort of juxtaposition more nimbly, throwing pop-culture satire (one character is named after Kylie Minogue) into the mix along with a technologically advanced dystopian future and a reference to G.K. Chesterton. The Chesterton nod is a solid acknowledgement that Emmons is well-aware of the playing field he’s opted for with his title.
Though it’s occasionally uneven, this collection is thought-provoking and incisive at its best.