In his latest short-story collection, Barzak (Birds and Birthdays, 2012, etc.) charmingly yet disturbingly juxtaposes fantastic and gritty realities.
The 17 stories collected here bring readers into worlds where mermaids beckon to the sea, where a boy wrapped in barbed wire becomes wrapped up in love, where the end of the world is just another way to find yourself, and where ordinary characters meet extraordinary circumstances. Barzak takes what readers know (or think they do) and skews the view, exposing a new side of reality. In “A Mad Tea Party,” ex-druggie Alice is trapped in a psychotic wonderland of emotional confusion, and in “The Other Angelas,” a woman literally splits herself apart to handle an emotionally abusive husband. In an elegant, stylistic example of second-person narration, one of the shorter stories, “A Beginner’s Guide to Survival Before, During, and After the Apocalypse,” showcases Barzak’s fluid, uncomplicated and provocative craftsmanship: “At night, build a small fire out of moss and straw and twigs. Do not risk the luxury of true warmth and light.” As the varied characters move from apathetic to desperate, hopeful to curious, they deal with subject matter so fantastic, the importance of a solid foundation becomes paramount. Here and there, an out-of-place phrase or a slip in narrative voice may take readers out of the carefully constructed stories, but fortunately, those instances are few and far between. Instead, readers will eagerly follow Barzak as he utilizes his natural storytelling talents. Fans of speculative fiction especially will enjoy this ride through the fantastic worlds Barzak conjures.
By stretching a bit past reality, these stories reveal it.