Adventures in Reading

Kilter: 55 Fictions by John Gould
July 20, 2008, 9:04 am
Filed under: book reviews, short stories | Tags: , , , ,

During my short story reading binge earlier this year, Melissa at Indextrious Reader suggested John Gould’s Kilter: 55 Fictions a collection of two to four pages stories. It’s a well-crafted and tightly packed collection, but I must confess that I found it somewhat lack-luster. Within the fifty-five stories there was a handful that I felt really stood out, but these I did not even discover until halfway through Kilter. All of the stories are well-crafted but many I found lacking the proverbial “breath of God” to give them life, and unfortunately many of the stories quickly dissolved into one another as the majority of them followed a similar equation of (mostly) a family group of characters with a dash of philosophical expounding. These stories are focused but somewhat mundane.
A few of the more exceptional stories include “Brood,” “Sunday morning,” and “Do the math.” “Brood” provides a curious look at the relationship between a man, some women, and the notions of reproduction and children. Though the collection was published in 2003, “Brood” has an eerily contemporary vibe for me thanks to some of the more recent pregnancy scandals drifting about the U.S.A. In less than three pages Gould’s male narrator has intentionally impregnated at least three women at their request and his female therapist tags this behavior as “‘What could be kinkier, what could be crueler than to reproduce?’” (99).

“Sunday morning” is one of the more intense stories of the collection as a couple (the woman annoyed and seemingly bored with the man at this time) goes through a morning ritual of reading the newspaper. Pregnant, she’s becoming increasingly paranoid as she reads about the world she’s bringing a child into and he regularly interrupts her to share his newfound fascination with the process of lethal injection. Two individuals press two distinct buttons, only one of which is “lethal,” so neither have the guilt of having pushed the button. These reflections on the crisis of the world quickly spiral into an unexpected, but beautifully timed and performed, dramatic scene of interaction, anger, and passion.

The final story I mentioned “Do the math” takes a gander at a white, middle-class, male whom has been invited to a dinner and unexpectedly must sit through an evening’s lecture (with slides) on the horrors of genocide. When the lecturer pleads with his audience to “‘Try to imagine the amount of brutality required to murder, by machete, eight hundred thousand people,’” the narrator blanches at the question being perfectly aware of his situation in life, his unfamiliarity with brutality, and he spends the next two pages pondering this subjective query. He attempts logic at multiplying the pain but his personal emotions become entangled as he decides to reconsider, and then reconsider some more.

In retrospect many of the stories in this collection give the impression that Gould found a formula, a pretty damn terrific formula that works quite decently but is still a formula, and for nearly fifty-five stories plugged and chugged away. I found few of the stories daring or challenging as a reader and left with the impression that Gould gathered the pieces, beautifully put them together, but then lacked the lightning rods to give them life. I hate to say it but I left Kilter feeling it had striven for being average or just okay.

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