Review: Light Lifting, by Alexander MacLeod

>>Published: September 2010

>>Finally got around to it: October 2010

Darkness, more often than not these days, exists as the axiom of the short story. Giving us characters as fractured as broken glass, with souls as black and jagged as a hunk of coal; they lie, cheat, beat each other up, kill one another with glorious abandon, betray basic human decencies and corrupt one another with almost comical ease. Compacted fiction takes the best and worst of us and distills said elements into a mere few thousand words. With so little space to work with, it’s no wonder why so many truly effective works of short fiction leave the reader feeling as if they’ve just been mugged and left to whimper softly with a knife in one side.

It is this utterly inexorable, to-the-point humanity on display in Alexander MacLeod’s first collection of seven short stories that packs such a wallop. The characters in Light Lifting are often so cold as to appear anything but human, but their actions so recognizable—with or without cause or discernable motivation—that they could truly be nothing but. The more one gets a feel for MacLeod’s characters and style of writing, the more the prevailing coldness wipes clean and the people beneath take shape. The perfunctory use of language doesn’t sugar coat the actions of any of these characters—their filth is in the open, plain-as-day visible as the scars so many of them are wearing by the time their stories come to a violent/deadly/despairing conclusion.

At once an educated economy of phrasing and an interesting exercise in truncating information, the author pares down the descriptions to only what is needed and ends up developing a secondary language of visually heavy shotgun bursts that are entirely unexpected but incredibly effective at cutting right to the quick:

“Desired outcomes. What we want is when we want it. No way to connect where we are and where we were. This is the opposite of everything we have ever done before. Sugar pills, place savers, in the circle dispenser. Click, click, click. Be sure to pull out. Blow your load. Days sprawling. Three years to finish the thesis. No rush. Smeared towels. Breakfast at three in the afternoon. Our first real bed, the mattress raised up off the ground. First place. Tall ceilings. Candles melting in the necks of wine bottles. Sticky cast off T-shirts. Summer humidity. Sun dresses and tank tops. Thin tan lines rolling over her shoulder. Freckles. Crusty Kleenex. A rubber swirling down the bowl. Ribbed for her pleasure. Random Wednesday afternoon. Lazy like you do not know.”

What feels cold and detached at first is quickly revealed to be loaded; each story is a cavalcade of emotions and actions we likely wish forgotten. MacLeod isn’t interested in playing it safe, or washing over the little bits of darkness we can uniformly relate to with a coat of nostalgia. He’d much rather use that nostalgia—the memories of people, places, and specific times and events in our lives—as a vehicle for playing on the past and mistakes so many of us have made (or wanted to make), holding them up as if to say, “This is what’s really in there. Take a good long luck, mother fucker.”

Brilliant.

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