Sometimes the prospect of a new story collection from a favorite author — prolific or not — can cause concern. Where will this writer be going? What else will they want to tell us? Since 1979 Boyle’s worked carefully and more often than not brilliantly in the rocky landscapes of environment and existential purpose. Who are we in relation to the land we’ve exploited for survival and profit? How have we dealt with a land that can sometimes be naturally and mercilessly cruel?
Boyle has always worked carefully not just in simple character studies and the humorous balance of the sexes but also the impossible, the probable, the likely, and all the thin lines that separate us from them. The Relive Box and Other Stories, Boyle’s 12th story collection, confidently takes its place with his 16 novels as an exploration of potential. Humorous, compassionate, unpredictable, weathered (literally and figuratively), brutal, and magically realistic — this is a collection of stories that matters.
In the title story, one of three stories — along with “Are We Not Men?” and “The Fugitive” — originally published in The New Yorker (and also Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015), a man takes advantage of a device that will allow him (and all others who buy it) to experience something again, not to “review” but “relive”. Boyle effectively alludes to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, where Scrooge could simply observe a scene but never participate in it. Furthermore, this is not technology anybody can see. It’s “…retinal projection… Anybody coming into the room… will simply see you sitting there in a chair with your retinas lit like furnaces.” He eventually sees time as meaningless. The man’s daughter uses The Relive Box, but not to the extent that her father does, and the pathos in the story’s ending will linger for a while.
The until now fatalistic, inevitable doom mood changes a little with “She’s the Bomb”, one of two stories — along with “You Don’t Miss Your Water (‘Til the Well Runs Dry)” — originally published in Narrative. Here, a girl is worried about the consequences if her parents learn about her status at college so she calls in a bomb threat during graduation ceremonies. Boyle works here with text messages and brief sketches to move the story along. In “Theft and Other Issues”, originally published in Playboy, a man loses his car, his live-in girlfriend, and leaves us with the possibility of something new and hopeful happening in the future. Boyle trusts the form and his readers enough to understand that while he’s just giving us slices of the pie, if you will, each serving has intense flavors that imply greater possibilities beyond the story told.
“Are We Not Men?” is also an entry in Best American Short Stories 2017 and one of those stunning T.C. Boyle visionary stories that resonates for many reasons, not least how convincingly and clearly he paints his set. His story collections are filled with such examples. Here, Boyle looks at the consequences of computer gaming, a “CRISPR” technology, and a future where the creation and commodification of transgenic creatures is a given:
“Now, not only could you choose the sex of the child at conception, you could choose its features too… The sole function of sex these days had become recreational; babies were conceived in the laboratory.”
Humor returns with “The Five Pound Burrito”, originally published in The Kenyon Review, about a man who seems driven to create the product detailed in the title. “If he didn’t have Jesus, at least he would have that,” the narrator concludes. The story evolves into some strange scenes with aliens, “…the blind eyes and moving lips that swelled against the pressure of his tongs…” Who they are is never really an issue. It’s a sketch that’s realized and nicely built within the strangeness of this world run by Sal the burrito maker.
The weaker beings among us come to basically take over the world in “The Argentine Ant”, and when Boyle blows the clarion call for action the reader best take heed. Few stories better exemplify that than “Surtsey”, originally published in The Kenyon Review. Here, a 16-year-old is dealing with an enormous flood. Was this a consequence of global warming? “Everybody knew what was coming… nobody arguing about it now… He concentrated on keeping the water out of his mouth…” The heartbreaking details and likelihood that this teen will not live to see a better day keeps you merciless tethered.
The issues become a little more domestic but no less complicated in “Subtract One Death”. A couple has arrived in town for the funeral of a friend. The man, an author, is to give the eulogy. They are staying at the house of a couple that is presently in Italy. Suddenly they receive news that that couple has been the victim of terrorists and the man died. This short story includes death from cancer, from terrorism, a possible accidental death — all dramatic movement in a dark, unforgiving world.
If “Surtsey” was about a devastating flood, then “You Don’t Miss Your Water (‘Til the Well Runs Dry)” can be seen as its opposite, and its effect is devastating on the reader. A man and his wife Micki are among those dealing with a killer drought, which has gone on for years with no end in sight. Their son Everett, home from college, has to deal with rationing and other radical measures to preserve the water supply. Then, there are the Veniers, neighbors who can’t seem to cope as well as our heroes. They’re not following rules. What works best here is the realistic picture Boyle creates. What if the once dependable snowpack in the mountains and the strength of the Colorado River suddenly fail? People shave their hair, once foul personal body odor becomes a given, and sharing bathwater depletes sexual drive. Mystery and romance has disappeared. By the time the drought breaks, with or without the help of a shaman, Boyle knows it has to be a dramatic moment:
“That was when the sound started in, a sound so alien I didn’t recognize it at first. It began as a patter on the roof, and then it quickened, and then the drains were rattling, macho, macho as all hell.”
There’s more heartbreak in “The Designee”, a touching account of an elderly man drawn into an overseas internet scam that quickly depletes him of financial resources and emotional goodwill. Boyle keeps the reader guessing to the end as to whether or not the man might be pulled from the pits of complete ruin. In “Warrior Jesus”, a young restaurant grill cook processes his feelings about the death of his cousin (a CBS news reporter) at the hands of Middle East terrorists. Warrior Jesus is a comic superhero he draws and writes, a Jesus who will avenge all wrongs and confront anything and anybody he sees as “other”. Boyle intersperses this narrative about his human hero Devon encountering the “other” with pitches about Warrior Jesus and his exploits. The effect is very touching.
What we understand at the end is what was obvious at the beginning. All these characters occupy prime real estate in T.C. Boyle’s world. They’re refugees, con artists, dreamers, skeptics, lovers, and warriors in various situations involving all sorts of eco nightmares. In “The Fugitive”, a character with tuberculosis has to wear a mask and not have contact with the world or else risk imprisonment. He breaks the agreement and is eventually remanded back into the custody “…as a threat to public safety.” Rosa Hinojosa, the caseworker who had once meant something to Marciano, this 23-year-old man, eventually lost her luster:
“…he realized she was nothing to him, and worse, that he was nothing to her but one more charity case…”
The brutal ending to this story, an irreparable act from the fugitive that leaves the characters and readers reeling, is in keeping with the sometimes heartless world of T.C. Boyle. The Relive Box and Other Stories works because it’s uncompromising, sometimes heartless, and always heartfelt. It’s another dozen jewels in the short story crown of a writer and novelist who continues to mine familiar themes and produce outstanding, surprising, haunting literature.