January 2006


Public Works: Short Fiction and a Novella by Christopher Grimes

This is how I feel about Christopher Grimes's debut collection of short fiction, Public Works: offended. Specifically, I feel explosively indignant that a book so utterly lacking in freshness or maturity could be published. And puzzled, too, because just who are these two people quoted on the back of his book that claim it to be "brilliant pastiche" of "wry perceptions," or that "Public Works heralds a fabulous new voice in fiction"? Were they paid?

Let me tell you now that I'm bringing bias into this review. First of all, try as I might to remain professional, I still take it personally when I witness the mishandling of the English language or a lazy disregard for the reader. It's a belief of mine that any writer who relies on stream of consciousness, an excessive amount of footnotes, italics, or any other literary gimmick to carry his or her story ought to, in the words of Garfield the cat, be dragged out in the street and shot. I also harbor the heretical notion that literature is about opening the world up to people to further understand the human condition -- not simply slinging words on a page for an exercise in intellectual masturbation. Writing is, or at least is should be, more than self-congratulation.

Public Works is just so bad. Ashton-Kutcher-romantic-comedy bad. Grimes's voice is inconsistent as he tries too hard to be detached and "real" or, alternatively, ironic and "literary" and ends up, instead, reading like imitations of Bret Easton Ellis or Chuck Palahniuk (the Limp Bizkits of "real" to begin with) with some Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace mixed in. Where was the author's voice in all of this? How can Grimes be a new voice if he's all echoes?

While I applaud any writer for experimenting with narrative forms, Grimes's attempts to use an interview format in "A Novel Failure" is just that, and those annoying footnotes in his novella, "The Inspection," are not only a groaningly stated hassle to read, they're a bald rip-off of Wallace's signature shtick. Further, there's not a single pair of quotation marks in the entire book and conspicuously few paragraph breaks. Mr. Grimes, no matter what supportive creative writing teachers may have told you, you are not cool enough to forego punctuation. Or dialogue for that matter.

Besides the style, the book is crippled by its lame story premises that seem to veer out of cheesy writing exercises (you know the kind: "Okay, everyone, just start writing -- but don't use the letter "e!"'). It's like Grimes wrote the first sentence to come to mind, like, say "We Stand Here, Swinging Cats," and then borrowed Kerouac's "first thought best thought" philosophy and hastily scribbled down his next twenty thoughts and voila! A fourteen-page story about a woman who gets smacked in the mouth with a dead cat.

To be fair, that premise might have been a great starting point for another story, but instead, it's the entire story: a woman gets hit in the mouth with a dead cat flung by a rich woman she later meets. All of which leaves a simple question unanswered: Who cares? Who cares if a woman gets hit in the face with a dead cat?

Maybe that kind of story would have been entertaining five years ago, when shocking things generally didn't enter into our American lives and reading about a dead cat flying into someone's mouth would have been appalling and intriguing. But we live in a world where a hurricane can come along and eat half of the Gulf Coast in a night, where hideous wars are fought over lies, where our President spies on us without apology. We live with real carnage and fear and uncertainty. Who cares about a dead cat?

Grimes is too old to write like a high-schooler and he lives in a world too old to read it. We need writers who offer perspective, not shit. Literally. "Bucket Number 28 for Fernando F. Goin" is the final story of this painful collection, and somehow fills three pages about cleaning shit buckets. How fitting then, that it ends the book with "You may not care one wit about all I've been telling you about this bucket, and this is fine... By all means then, put both me and the bucket completely out of your mind. But rest assured that the bucket will need to be emptied, and at such time as the bucket needs to be emptied, most assuredly we will empty our bucket together."

So, bucket of shit. I think that about sums it up.

Public Works: Short Fiction and a Novella by Christopher Grimes
ISBN: 1573661244
177 Pages