What’s the point of reading a book when, regardless of the book’s brilliance, you’ll still eventually end up dead? In his award-winning debut collection of twenty-three fabulist fictions, The Era of Not Quite, Douglas Watson takes up this question by knocking off characters left and right. In one story, Watson tosses a luckless schmuck into the void. In another, he flattens a thoughtful library patron with a dump truck while the patron’s daughter contemplates wonder. In the penultimate tale, a seven-year-old girl, poor dear, is bucked from a newly invented breed of miniature horse. Deaths stack up, morbidity becoming its own joke as nihilism loops back on itself again and again. The result is absurdity, hilarity, heady contemplation, and killer prose.
Of course, there’s nothing like a good literary offing to cleanse the palate, and this book offers deaths galore. But Watson’s stories run deeper than clever premises and guillotine giddiness. In this first book, winner of the BOA Short Fiction Prize, Watson adds his unique voice to postmodernism, joining the ranks of Barthelme, Beckett, and Calvino and holding his own. With playful experimentation and linguistic prowess, Watson mocks the conventions of fiction, making us wonder what stories really are for in this post-literate era when the masses can read but literacy fails to deliver us from unexceptional lives. Before you can lose hope, though, Watson shifts away from farce, showering us with moments of linguistic sublimity that remind us why fiction endures.
Watson drops us into folkloric lands of kings, wolves, and dragons as readily as he places us in nondescript contemporary landscapes of billboards, busses and, yes, libraries of all things. Then there are stories where Watson muddles time, inserting props from commercial culture into the sparse world of the fable. Take the story “When the World Broke,” where a golden-haired peasant boy living in a remote village on the edge of a forbidding forest fills a water bottle—ubiquitous thing—before slinging a bag of oats over his shoulder and venturing off through valleys lit by thousands of electric lights on a quest to save his beloved ailing mother and the world. It’s as though Watson is saying, hey, this is the realm of fiction, an artificial space, no? Fairy tale setting? Depressingly realist small town complete with Unitarian church? What’s the difference when neither really exists in a book?
Into these confused and anachronistic settings, Watson focuses his gaze on down-and-out characters, friendless, discouraged, but not without hope. Take Hal Walker from Watson’s title story “The Era of Not Quite”:
Portrayed with charming deprecation, Watson’s characters are antiheroes for the new millennium, rivaling TV’s despondent office cubicle plebes for honors in futility. Watson’s characterization also has a touch of the metafictional in it. He makes us aware in every detail of the artifice of character construction. In stories such as “The Death of John O’Brien,” for example, Watson pokes fun at our contemporary lust for quirky characterization in describing the soon-to-be-dead library patron’s offspring:
Here, Watson includes us in the fun of conjuring up ridiculous people, the punch line being that these literary puppets are not so very different than those who populate our own reality, which might itself be a fiction, constructedness inescapable in a culture that layers text upon text.
Then there are stories like “Special Advertising Section,” where Watson throws metafictional subtlety out the window and ridicules the very endeavor in which he engages, the act of writing a book. Watson writes:
Too gimmicky? It might be if what Watson did were simple. If all this story amounted to was the realization that the author is addressing the reader to pan his own book, then yes, this story would be droll. But here, Watson addresses the absurdity of what the entire literary world has become with a self-awareness that makes us laugh out loud. In a mere four pages, he mocks the celebration of the novel over the lowly story collection and the necessity of superstar blurbers who serve as literary gods in an industry whose fans worship their heroes not for the sake of their souls or the goodness of mankind but so that they might join the ranks of the worshipped themselves.
Is Watson writing only to writers? He might say, yes, of course; that’s what our tiny insular literary ecosystem has become. And while this collection certainly is writerly, it isn’t only for the insider club of MFA alums. Anyone who loves language will devour this book because linguistically, Watson does things with a sentence that are so subtle and masterful, you find yourself startled by their effects. Take this first sentence from the title story:
Here, Watson mixes world weariness with startlingly formal diction crossed with a jolt of something bright and intense. Watson performs these syntactical acrobatics again and again. It’s like Cirque de Soleil for book nerds. Just look how those sentences bend.
Here’s one more. The opening of “Against Specificity” goes like this:
The trouble: You want Thing A but are stuck with Thing B.
Shit, you say, turning Thing B around in your hands. Look at this thing, you say. It’s as dull as a bucket of dirt. It’s not half as interesting as a sculpture of a dog pissing on a dead man’s shoe in the rain, and you don’t have one of those. You don’t have Thing A, either.
Hell, you haven’t even seen Thing A. You’ve only heard about it from your neighbor, who works down at the Thing Exchange. What he or she said: Thing A shines like a gold tooth in the mouth of Jesus. Thing A is rounder, fuller, faster, zestier than Thing B. Thing A is perfect—it’s what you need. Why, it even smells good, like waffles (9).
Of course, this tale of materialistic desire is a commentary on capitalist consumption, but such a summation completely misses the fun of the ridiculous similes, meta-absurdity, and wryness of the voice. Watson’s work flips easy summations on their heads. Go deep, dear critic. This textual thing that Watson’s concocted has layers you could unpack until the cows hang up their udders and stumble home.
And when the cows are tucked away and you’ve fully mulled over Watson’s first book, don’t fret. You won’t be lonesome long. This Watson fellow’s on a roll. In April, he releases a novel from Outpost 19. And the title? Wait for it, folks—A Moody Fellow Finds Love and Then Dies. We’re surely in store for more postmodernist hullabaloo.
We don’t often hand out trophies for metafiction and humor, but shine your brassware, world. This debutante’s got stuff to say and the way he says it sparkles so loud you’ll erect a trophy soon for Douglas Watson-ness: the not-quite-cracked-or-lucid-rendering of life-ishness-in-fabulist-fashion Award.
Tessa Mellas won the 2013 Iowa Short Fiction Award. Her debut collection Lungs Full of Noise will be published in October 2013 by University of Iowa Press. She holds a PhD from the University of Cincinnati and will be the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bowling Green State University in spring 2014. She lives with a poet, two cats, and thousands of composting worms.