The characters in T.C. Boyle’s latest story collection, The Relive Box and Other Stories, suffer from afflictions: not only the natural disasters of hurricanes, ant infestations, and the like, but also from all-too-human thefts, graduation mishaps, failed relationships, and Super Bug illness. “We live at a time when resources are dwindling, when crises are looming,” Boyle says. “Other writers and artists often want readers or their audience to feel good, but there are no happy endings in life.” Boyle quotes Italo Calvino: “ ‘The best you can expect is to avoid the worst.’ I wish I had better news, but it’s not a friendly universe—it’s mysterious and frightening. And that’s a theme I’ve been addressing in my work from the beginning.”
These stories do, at times, hearken back to Boyle’s earliest absurdist stories: the title story of the new collection and “Are We Not Men?” (with its homage to H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau ) both place characters in a future just beyond the technologies of today. The title story imagines a world in which a box can play back any memory desired by the viewer. Is a person alive when all one does is live out obsessively the memories of one’s past? Is there even a present for someone whose life is bound by what’s come before? It’s an odd affliction in which nostalgia becomes addictive: musing on Life Before is the goal of life.
“Are We Not Men?” presents a Brave New World of genetic modifications: lawns that “glow under the porchlight at night,” offspring with the desired genetic attributes of height, eye color, and IQ, and hybrid dogs in the colors of Baskin-Robbins flavors. Yet the world of “Are We Not Men?” is as old as ever, with the characters obsessed by timeless issues of love, sex, and procreation.
Boyle admits that these stories echo his earliest work: “If the stories have evolved over time, perhaps there’s more interest on my part in character. That’s something that I attribute to the writing of novels. But I’m just as interested in language as I was in my youth.”
Themes of alienation and isolation abound in the stories. A moment from the marvelous concluding story, “The Fugitive,” encapsulates the feelings and even human estrangement of many of Boyle’s characters: “What was waiting for him at home—nothing, zero, exactly zero.” That repetition of “zero,” with the added precision of exactly, emphasizes the protagonist’s lack of human connection—and desperation. “As a 17-year-old,” Boyle explains, “I was wrapped up in the embrace of existentialism. And now death looms closer as I age.”
Death may hover close to the surface of many of these stories, but the darkness is delivered with deadly satire and abundant doses of wicked humor. For example, the texts between two friends in “She’s the Bomb” play with the shorthand of phone technology and its humorous, almost poetic concision (“u need/2 tell her now//No way//Way”) , while also serving to frame this narrative of a college student driven to desperation to save face at graduation.
Donald Barthelme’s absurdist fiction has been an inspiration for Boyle’s work. Other influences include the exaggerated folk tale elements found in the work of Gabriel García Márquez or Robert Coover. “When I started writing,” Boyle says, “I was caught up in the absurd. I never read science fiction, but some of my stories tilt that way. But I’m not interested in categories. Is Borges sci-fi? García Márquez? I don’t find categories interesting; it’s just literature.”
Contemporaries who have moved Boyle include Denis Johnson, especially Fiskadoro and Jesus’ Son. “I miss Denis deeply,” Boyle says. “He was in the forefront of American literature.” Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is a novel that Boyle asserts “is so beautiful.”
Notwithstanding the dour themes that abound in Boyle’s stories (and novels), he suggests that writing is about joy: “What has propelled me from the beginning of my writing life has been the art of writing: language, structure, and themes. It’s been about the fun of taking readers outside themselves and into new worlds. In that way, art is entertainment.”
So whether it’s a story that begins with an image of a face in a burrito, or another set during a drought that stretches so long the sound of rain is a foreign language or “so alien” it’s unrecognizable, Boyle’s mastery of the short story form—and his insatiable curiosity about life’s mysteries—shows no sign of slipping in his latest collection. May we relive such stories many more years.
J. W. Bonner writes regularly for Kirkus. He teaches writing and the Humanities at Asheville School in Asheville, N.C.