Review: In The Mean Time, by Paul Tremblay

>>Published: October 2010

>>Finally got around to it: December 2010

Wordlessly, Jody and Joe climbed down the ridge. They crept behind the jagged boulder and found his body, lying adjacent to the flat rock upon which he landed. The boy looked like Joe and the boy looked like Jody, but only smaller, younger. The left side of his head was dented, caved-in, and was missing a flap of scalp. His left arm was held out stiffly and twitched, beating like one wing of a broken hummingbird. The lower half of his face had crumbled, ice cream melting over a cone. He was breathing, but irregularly. They crouched, hands over their mouths, but not over their eyes. His chest inflated sharply, then deflated slowly, a sagging balloon. The right side of his face was perfect, asleep. His left eye was swollen shut, or missing. It was hard to know for sure with the orbital socket broken, pushed in, along with the area around his temple. Everything leaked slowly. There were too many colours on his face. And his teeth, his teeth, they were baby teeth, as small as seeds, and they peppered the sand and dirt around his head, those miniature headstones in the sand. Then there was one long sigh and the boy stopped breathing and his arm stopped moving.

***

A collection of 15 dark fantasy/surrealist tales, Paul Tremblay’s In The Mean Time is a wildly uneven book—at times brilliant and subversive (such as the frame-by-frame creeping of a security video taken in a classroom that forever disrupts the life and mental state of a student), but equally capable of being overtly mundane and obtuse. Already a published author several times over, Tremblay’s skilful use of language shines in every story (as seen in the disturbingly brilliant portion up above). But it’s the tales themselves that suffer from a somewhat discombobulated tone.

Narrative is clearly not Tremblay’s intent with these tales. He’s not interested in telling us a story or taking us on a ride. No, what drives these disparate stories is the onion peeling of layers and layers of distress, trauma and psychosis—all captivating conceptually, but not always relayed in an intriguing manner.

In cases where this style absolutely works—“The Teacher”; “The Two-Headed Girl”; “There’s No Light Between Floors”; “Headstones in Your Pocket”—the characters provide just enough three-dimensionality to really succeed at pulling the reader into the layers of subtle distress (particularly with the last story mentioned, which I felt to be the highlight of the book). They exist apart from the tales, and not as products for the writer to experiment with.

Conversely, where this stylistic approach doesn’t work as well—“The Strange Case of Nicholas Thomas: An Excerpt from A History of the Longesian Library”; “We Will Never Live in the Castle”; “The People Who Live Near Me”—the author’s experimentation results in characters who feel less approachable/relatable and more as if they were avatars for a concept only partially realized. In this regard, the collection suffers from a strange duality that prevents it from ever feeling like a complete work; many of the stories wind up feeling anticlimactic when paired with others, their intent diluted from the lack of a complete vision that is sometimes endemic of works of short fiction. This is not to say that all short fiction collections need to have a mosaic-like approach to them, but I have always felt that the more successful ones in this regard have at least an understandable focus or conceit that guides the selections and how they are paired with one another.

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