Books

T.C. Boyle's 'The Relive Box and Other Stories' Will Leave You Reeling

Humorous, compassionate, unpredictable, weathered (literally and figuratively), brutal, and magically realistic -- this is a collection of stories that matters.


The Relive Box and Other Stories

Publisher: Ecco
Author: T.C. Boyle
ISBN-10: 0062673394
ISBN-13: 978-0062673398
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-10
Amazon

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.

8

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image