January 28th, 2020

This is not a Review...

… of Super Flat Times

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Full disclosure, there was a time when I tried to write exactly like Matthew Derby.


I first read Super Flat Times probably something like 15 years ago and at a time in my life when I was on the hunt for the gritty new thing in world of science fiction—the genre that gave the world Philip K Dick and William Gibson, Arthur C Clarke and Robert Heinlein—a genre I despised and adored in equal measure—that would come to dominate my life. And with Matthew Derby’s brilliant collection was part of that. Re-reading them for this essay, that initial electric feeling I had the first time around came rolling back. These stories are on fire!


My initial reaction was that these escapades into the unconscious—not unlike HP Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, but as experienced through the lens of a psychedelic Raymond Carver—present us with a a new kind of sight and a new type of access to world and world-building. Rather than presenting us with a world that is minutely crated, Derby creates a haze the reader is maneuvering through, and I suspect, a haze that Derby himself is inspecting with the same wonder and whimsical ignorance as his readers.


In part because he stories in Super Flat Times were inspired by conversations Derby had with his young child. As Derby himself puts it, they are “more about the kind of fictional world you can create with a kid who’s still trying to stitch the world together in their head—there are these gaps, and they often fill them in with totally amazing stuff you’d never imagine yourself.” And what comes of this collaboration are stories that consist of more an alien realism. They are glimpses into a world we cannot know, but can only guess at. Rather than giving us a key into the palace, Derby has offered only a keyhole into a world is one half dream and the other half too real.


At the time, I was working with children and doing a lot of storytelling activities myself, as well as being interested in surrealism and utilizing randomness and divination in writing—as PKD and John Cage used the I Ching for example—but, Super Flat Times is more than some gimmick text. The art and poetry of it are all Derby’s doing, and the tone—from the poetically realistic, “A bird approached at his feet, looking at him sideways, its head a worrisome cloud of nervous activity” (p140); to the downright surreal, “his rueful, multi-chambered face” (p45) or “…her face converging at odd, unpredictable angles, like complex origami” (p126); to the downright profound, “Should I say that I got in and drove off, smoking one cigarette after another, lining them up end on end until I was all of the way out of that life? Because what happened was that I stayed there, with those people, for another three and a half dreadful, thoroughly forgettable years in the way that we best know how to make ourselves feel welcome wherever we’d least like to be,” (p57).


The book presents itself as a collection of documents, with an introduction by a “translator” who describes them as “prayers”, and throughout Super Flat Times, it is true that words will be used in ways that bend or belie their meanings. There’s a glossary of terms at the back of the book that reads like a story of its own, with the mundane definition slipped in to offset the glossary’s more alarming entries—like Fud for example. (A colored gas used to advertise directly onto the atmosphere that results in a pollution of especially hard clouds.) Sometimes you can feel the child origin of the word in its very silliness, but just as often, descriptions seem hauntingly inhuman, like when a narrator describes his own hand as “scaly white” almost as an afterthought. Throughout, Derby is presenting us with a wildly unsettling vision of the world as seen through a playful kaleidoscope of language that conceals as much as it reveals, and in the interplay between what clues we are given and what mysteries are suggested, there is an ocean of imaginative possibilities our minds are always lingering over with a tantalizing uncertainty.


At their worst, these stories seem arbitrary, like something cobbled together in a round-robin storytelling experiment, but at their best, we are witnessing something like a legitimate picture of the apocalypse—something not caught up in the latest neo-noir, retro-futurist, cyberpunk, or steampunk story-telling trend, but rather capturing something that feels like a genuine account of some alternate universe apocalypse that we can only loosely understand from our own well-measured timeline—even when at the same time, they seem to be describing something all too familiar, like the meaninglessness of war or the opioid crisis.


“My husband was a face attendant, unemployed. When he was working, his job was to stand next to his employer all day, emphasizing with slender, fluted face wands the four or five expressions that most clearly brought out the emotional state of the particular person. It was an exhausting practice, and one that had taken years to learn.”


The experience of apocalypse is itself alienating. It is the change of your world into a new and less inhabitable world. It is the end of the world as you know it, but it is also happening as mundane reality continues to spin on with its day-to-day chores and everyday disappointments. This is the alternate reality apocalypse I see in Super Flat Times. The face attendant is unemployed; the family does not have food to eat.


Towards the end of the book, there is a story called Night Watchmen, that reminds me of a short film Harmony Korine made starring Die Antwoord called Umshini Wam. (In which a pair of wannabe-gangstahs go on a killing spree to get truly top of the line wheelchairs and rims.) In both, the despondency and pathos of the characters is juxtaposed with the absurd—an absurd premise, absurd imagery—and in both this juxtaposition presents us with a blurring of the adult and the child—which happens throughout Super Flat Times. That having said, the juxtaposition of this unpleasant grittiness against alarming childishness only works to make the stories more bleak than they otherwise would have been.


Just now, I said that at their worst, these stories seem arbitrary, and I would like to qualify that. Derby can be forgiven his arbitrariness, because it is in those moments of arbitrariness when the child most exquisitely breaks into this adult world, like a momentary ideological blurring—as in, Sound Gun, when the soldier describes the enemy hurling VCR’s at them. The adult voice cedes to the child voice in that moment and forces me to incorporate a child’s perspective inside of what is at times also something horrific—like as in, the more detailed description of the sound gun rupturing the enemy’s bowels described only a few pages later. Because of the dual lineage in the authorial line—between Derby and his kid—we find ourselves at times not just with an unreliable narrator, but an unreliable author such that it is almost like two gods created this fictional universe, and they are not always in alignment.


This wild childlike vision can act almost as commentary, as in the case of the Sound Gun. That moment of the VCR’s are being thrown almost seems to play by different rules than the rest of the story, like it’s gone beyond the boundaries of absurdism we had accepted and taken it to a level so childish and impossible that we are forced into a kind of uncomfortable parallax view. It is a moment of complete disbelief in a story that wasn’t trying very hard to be believable from the beginning. It’s a moment that says, “You don’t know what’s happening here, but do I know what’s happening here?” All of which, somehow only makes the entire experience that much more vivid and raw.


Ultimately, if I were to compare these stories to any one writer, I would say they most remind me of George Saunders. The sense of humor, the realism set in a surreal backdrop, even the cadence of the dialogue reminds me of certain George Saunders I have read, but the crispness of the language and the constantly shifting perspective we are given—moving from childish and humorous to detailed and adult to something in between, as, for example in the Sound Gun story mentioned in the last paragraph, when the narrator begins ruminating on the bobcat his roommate and/or boyfriend brought into the house to keep as a pet.


There are times, though, when Derby transcends Saunders, to create something truly Kafkaesque.


“After school, Pembroke designed roller coasters. He had gotten the job by falling in with some amusement park enthusiasts at the cafeteria. They were tired of the same rides again and again. They were not interested in being tossed aloft by these crass, overwrought machines in the same way that their fathers had, and their fathers before them. They felt that fear was an outmoded response, not worth their time. They wanted a vehicle that would shake them up inside, get them to feel something new. Together they designed a unit called “The Diaspora,” which took its passengers slowly up a steep incline for 1,200 feet. At the peak, the coaster stopped and everyone had to get out and climb down a narrow stairwell to the ground. Some steps were deliberately brittle, so that if one person broke through they could bring the whole group down with them. No one had any idea how popular it would become. Crowds flocked to the ride right from the start, but especially after the first three deaths. Passengers who made it all the way through the ride were fatigued, confused, and disoriented. Some lost the power of speech, or became wildly incontinent. The park management quickly erected an exit tent to handle the massive psychological casualties incurred by the ride.” (pp68-69)


These are stories that follow the conceits of realism, that appear to allude to and be touching upon a world we know and understand, but have seen that world backwards, in colors of the garishly impossible and the ludicrous. And occasionally, they go so far as to almost seem to wrap their way back round again. Like the visions of saints and madmen, they seem to touch the real world from underneath.


Of course, some are better than others. The ending of Behavior Pilot I found especially powerful, but other endings didn’t resonate as much, or felt too disconnected for me to relate to. The different sections too, had distinct flavors to them. The first is more brutishly absurd, and somewhere about halfway through the book the realism becomes more pronounced and sometimes eclipses what absurdist elements there were. Derby is at his best when he plays that middle line. Too realistic, and the work loses that certain something that sets it apart, and too wild in its imaginings and it loses me.


Derby’s conceit has led to a collection of stories that seem like they were meant for this time of crisis and carelessness. We are living in the Super Flat Times. We are seeing the impossible become possible. We are become like children faced with a new and horrific world. And what are we going to do about it?


“Suddenly, and as always, it was morning.”