May 2007

Justin Taylor


A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both: Stories about Human Love by Ben Greenman

On the back of Ben Greenman’s new book, A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both: Stories About Human Love, Pauls Toutonghi claims the following: “This book made me laugh out loud on the subway. Then it forced me to miss my stop entirely.”

Everyone knows -- or ought to know -- that the tendency of the blurb is toward the aphorism. They are not written in a strict realist mode, and as such shouldn’t be taken literally. But you know what? I believe that one. The same thing nearly happened to me the day I bought Greenman’s earlier book, Superworse. I decided at that point to confine my Greenman reading to coffee shops, my own home, and other stationary locations.

Superworse: The Novel by Ben Greenman with a Foreword, Midword, and an Afterword by Laurence Onge, Edited by Laurence Onge (Soft Skull, 2004) bills itself a “remix” of Superbad: Stories and Pieces, published by McSweeney’s in 2001. The remixed version of the book is missing several musical numbers, and the presence of Greenman’s “editor,” Laurence Onge, is much enhanced. In the first book Onge is limited to an introduction; in the remix he interjects regularly, relentlessly pressing the case that Superworse is not a story collection, but a novel -- and that it is filled with coded homages to him. The satire of Borgesian or Nabokovian textual play is well suited for a book in which a number of the stories are concerned with issues of authorship and authenticity, and almost every story in Superworse successfully pulls double duty as both piece of the Onge puzzle and as free-standing, entertaining, smart short fiction.

High expectations are a lot easier to disappoint than to satisfy. With a writer such as Greenman, who consistently takes risks in and with his stories, the possibility of striking out on the at-bat after the grand slam was a very real one.

The 14 stories in A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both: Stories About Human Love are arranged by their particular depictions of love, as: Art, Music, Place, Sport, Animal, Power, Joke. That’s one through seven. Eight through 14 invert that order, creating a relatively simple but powerful palindrome structure. A graphic, basic as office clip-art, makes it impossible to misunderstand the system. Black concentric semi-circles connect the pairs of stories on the left side, each semi-circle suggesting its absent other half, a visual riff on the idea that love completes people. The thematic pairs also underscore the book’s thesis about love’s multiplicity: it can lift you up (balloon) or leave you desperate for navigational tools (compass); sometimes the feelings of elation and disorientation co-mingle -- to be afloat is necessarily to risk floating adrift -- and this unnamable sensation dominates the book.

If this seems like a lot for a “funny” book to throw at a reader -- in its table of contents, no less -- take it as an early indicator that this is not “just” a “funny” book. Greenman’s hunting bigger game than chuckles and the occasional belly laugh. Comedy is a major aspect -- but hardly the limit -- of what he’s doing. That said, it’s something of a relief as well as a thrill when the first story, “Black, Gray, Green, Red, Blue” has its narrator -- a pill-popping epistle-scribbling painter -- on the moon by the top of page two: “We had dinner. We had dessert. We went to bed and drank a few glasses of red wine, after which I made my case for embracing what was good in the world. ‘You know what that means? For us?’ I said. You seemed to. We went to sleep perpendicular to one another. Your head was on my chest. The next morning, when I woke up, I was on the moon. You were not. I cursed.”

Greenman’s prose style is reminiscent of George Saunders, and the best work of Aimee Bender. Like those writers, his strength is his eye for detail, the most important component skill of which is deciding what not to detail. In “Oh Lord! Why not?” a has-been pop star and current fast food franchisee sometimes wishes he could get back into the music business. The dream is impossible to realize. Easy at-home recording technology allowing anyone to create and distribute their own pop songs led to a glut of them, which in turn led to the creation of a federal law to curb them. “By the terms of the Litt Act, each and every American is permitted to release only one pop song. It rises as high as it rises [on the charts], then it falls away, and people go back to their lives. If a person was a pop singer (or star) before the Era of the Pop Singer, he or she is not allowed to release any songs at all.” There’s not much else you could need (or want) to know about this world where, “[w]e have a nation of pop singers, but no pop stars,” and Greenman wisely doesn’t tell us much more about it. Rather than push his conceit to (or beyond) the limit of believability, he introduces it early and then lets it hover above the proceedings like an atmospheric condition -- a weird low cloud.

In “Clutching and Glancing,” Deborah, a sculptor on a break from her art, is working as a barmaid in a Miami hotel hosting back-to-back medical conferences. She falls for one of the guests, a married man in town for both conferences. Greenman’s hotel is both claustrophobic and cavernous. The characters all seem to be wandering lost within it, and yet they keep bumping into each other. “The more I thought about the prospect of an affair with Arthur Manley, the more likely it seemed. In fact, I realized that Arthur Manley and I were already in one of the rooms of the hotel, and that he was already lowering himself to the level of my hips, and sliding a hand between my legs, and whispering my name. It was only a matter of time. And since I couldn’t stop time, it had in a sense already happened.” Instead of relegating “the wife” to a moral concept, Greenman brings her right up to the hotel bar. She drinks Bloody Marys and complains to Deborah about her marital problems. This is an excellent story.

To be sure, there were only a few points in the book where Greenman lost me. “Contemplating a Thing About a Person” starts strong, with a man thinking about his girlfriend, “Geraldine, whose name I wanted to push off a cliff,” but it seems to really be a story about some dog crap, which almost categorically means that it is (or is intended to be) about something other than mere dog crap, but I just couldn’t get hip to whatever its point was. “A Field Guide to the North American Bigfoot” suffers the opposite problem; rather than eluding understanding it was fully, exactly one thing and not a lot more. “The Duck Knows How to Make the Most of Things” is a very good story, but the running gag about names isn’t doing nearly as much work as anything this prominent in a story should. There are a few lines in this piece worthy of Donald Barthelme: “The Bootblack strikes the signpost with his bicycle lock. It gives a clang that is similar to the sound of a belt buckle striking a jungle gym bar that is damped by the soft hand of a naked woman who is hanging there while she is being worked over consensually by a man of her acquaintance.” I consider this the most disappointing story in the book because, slightly reconceived, I think it might have been the very best.

Some of the other stand-outs in this collection are “The Re-Education of M. Grooms,” “My Decorous Pornography” (“I want your Ts around my C for a while, and then after you put your M on my C again and I put my M on your P, I’ll put my C in your P”) and the longish closer “In the Air Room,” an affecting, oddly tender story about an eccentric multi-millionaire, the artist he hires to paint his portrait, the woman the artist falls for, and the history of flight. What Greenman is suggesting about love is something that the early aviators probably knew well: there is no flying but flying blind, and nothing for it but to keep going. Hope you’re pointed in the right direction, that you’ll stay in the air as long as possible, and that the landing will be a smooth one, preferably not into some ocean.

A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both: Stories About Human Love by Ben Greenman
ISBN: 1596922079
273 Pages

Justin Taylor is the editor of The Apocalypse Reader, out this month from Thunder’s Mouth Press. His website is