September 2005

Angela Stubbs

fiction

Simplify by Tod Goldberg

In Tod Goldberg's new collection of short-stories, Simplify, he takes us on journeys that explore the depths of despair, self-inflicted madness, melancholy, homosexuality, religion and even death. Goldberg draws us in to these beguiling tales and keeps the reader in an anticipatory frenzy with each turn of the page. He conjures up images of love, examines ardent familial devotion, and makes room for redemption within just 12 stories.

Goldberg’s stories have big moments of strange religion, missing people and screwy childhood. Each story is like taking a trip back in time to the scary places we visited as a kid. Whether it’s at our most insecure or our most charming, Simplify leads you by the hand down those roads you haven’t traveled in a while. It manages to bring up feelings and insecurities that many of us can relate to but probably wish we couldn’t. Raw human emotion mingles with you in worlds surreal and otherwise. Through each of these stories, Goldberg’s style is one that keeps our interest with his attention to detail, his keen take on relationships and latte-making.

The title story examines the life of a third-grader and what happens to him when he is diagnosed as dyslexic. After being removed from his everyday environment with friends, he’s placed in a class for “retards.” At his eye appointment, he fears his dyslexia has turned his eyes into shriveled up raisins. Soon he turns to his own alphabet, made up of letters and words that only he can read as the regular alphabet is too daunting. The story is fraught with oddball friends (a hermaphrodite in particular) childhood bullies and even death. As the story progresses, so does the dyslexic alphabet. The main character goes through his life using this alphabet to get through the “scary places.” As numbers are assigned to people in his alphabet, people soon become equations. It becomes easy to live in this world he’s created for himself, full of letters and numbers, but as he gets married and has a family, he decides to squelch the urge to solve equations and simplify his life.

“Jesus of Cathedral City” is a comic look at what happens when Jesus masquerades as an everyday person here on earth. Jesus finds a couple to channel his powers through, give advice and enjoy some Starbucks Coffee with. Jesus tells the couple on one of his visits, “You can expect to encounter a few unpleasant things alongside some really great things, which are also terribly unpleasant, and then some remarkable things that may seem terrible but will end up seeming miraculous.” The couple experience giving a blind woman sight just by passing by her in Powell’s bookstore, saving a family in an overturned mini-van by lifting the car off of them as well as running into the devil’s work when the wife’s breasts grow in gargantuan proportions. Goldberg’s comedic look at temptation and doing God’s work is accentuated by the places we find God in this story like PBS pledge drives, chess games with the devil and coffeehouses.

Goldberg also commandeers the curse of love and self-loathing in a way no one else can. “Try Not to Lose Her,” written in second person is done with flair. A moving account of an adolescent’s trip through love and self-hate, we watch our main character give himself laxatives because he hates being fat. The narrative voice of this piece echoes that of Lorrie Moore. While there appears to be no apparent reason for the story’s strange narrative, it goes off without a hitch.

Each story in this collection is pulled off with brilliance and confidence. Simplify allows us to think about the human condition and its uniqueness without offering up clichés. Some stories are littered with disappointment and suicidal tendencies. “Myths of Our Time” watches a family scatter their 16-year-old daughter’s ashes along Loch Ness while trying to come to terms with why she plunged to her death off the Golden Gate Bridge. Her remains include only “her left foot and Swatch watch (the black one with the French words for numbers.)” In "The Last Time We Never Met” the main character takes a job cleaning up homes of people who have died or committed suicide while he himself is planning his suicide. Again. Goldberg shows how neglect manifests itself within the human mind and eventually leads to a callous and numb existence that could be reversed if only for some honest human kindness. He has the effortless ability to capture a child’s emotions and need for sincerity and love in “Disappear Me” and our capacity for madness in “Hope, Love and Faith” wherein we witness the main character lose his girlfriend to his best friend. One of the creepiest and dysfunctional stories I’ve ever read is “The Distance Between Us.” The narrator’s older brother returns home from serving in Desert Storm only to leave in the midst of a dinner at T.G.I. Friday’s and never return home. This story is a fascinating look into the world of appearances. Goldberg helps us peek into that strange place where things aren’t always as they seem.

Perhaps the best story in this collection is the “Comeback Special” where we find Elvis in a framed photograph hanging on the narrator’s wall in his living room. As Elvis begins to bleed inside the frame and change outfits as days pass, the owner of the picture decides to have someone take a look. The situation becomes a national spectacle. People show up on his lawn, others pass out, camp out and wait to catch a glimpse of The King. This surreal account of Elvis’s return to the real world has caused people’s imaginations to run wild. Fans vehemently insist he’s got the same DNA as Elvis, others thinking he can cure disease by a simple touch. Goldberg is at his all-time best when he’s telling stories like the this.

Simplify captures a wide range of emotions and style in his debut collection of short stories. Goldberg has thought a lot about the human condition and the way our hearts and minds define us. He is effortlessly brilliant with his pared-down prose and attention to detail. In a society that is disinclined to contemplate our own deaths, Goldberg hits it head-on with no qualms or fluff. His stories will provoke and startle you. There is a distinct balance in each of his stories, giving just enough humor, thought and sincerity to the entire collection. It’s rare to find a book that can evoke such strong emotions within a single collection, however, Tod Goldberg’s Simplify is a force to be reckoned with.

Simplify by Tod Goldberg
University of Illinois Press
ISBN: 0976717719
184 Pages