The four novellas that comprise this collection deal with a wealth of themes, but the ultimate one is of unachieved desire and the isolating mania it spawns. Instead of the narrators (or perhaps they’re all the same person in each story) dealing with crushing let downs internally, the reality surrounding them alters into hellish distortions of traverses through time and space. ‘Surrealistic’ doesn’t fully capture the formal breed of this collection, but each reader still gets pressured into a position of abstract meaning-making. Each first-person protagonist comes across as calm, numb, accepting, and apathetic toward the edge of reality they skate on through these sparse stories. From one novella to another, though, a sense of personal progression exists through the environments the narrators find themselves in. Yet each setting is coated with a muffled insistence on the pointlessness of these progressions.
The first novella, Etudes, is a solitary study of man unafraid of the warzone he’s captured in, yet terrified of acting on his desires toward his woman of interest. These unmet desires move the narrator to more accessible perversions, which morph playful and genuine aspects of interaction into ones of horror. The objects of his affection alternate through the four sections of this story, but his own timidity of intimacy begins to create external barriers that increasingly prevent him from even being in the presence of the woman he wants. “My despondency was so profound that I was only barely aware of the appalling comedy of the situation,” he recounts after a flight delay makes it impossible to share a plane ride with his current obsession. The final section, however, shows the narrator as an emotionally sapped and mechanical being, going through motions that prevent him from fully dealing with his past failures.
Story About Nothing is a free flowing narration of negation. Its dreamlike uncertainty weaves through the inner sensual life of a man who defies his masculinity by wearing women’s clothing beneath his socially accepted guise. Human motion plays a large role in this story, from his description of pornography that paralyzes his eyes and attention in awe (“these images remained what they were, frozen in the eternal repetition of their so violently human perfection”) to the motions of dancing women, and the process of his drunkenness alike as “a form of communion, the step beyond that imperceptibly opens up the road to the world of death, revealing to the one taking it that it already stretches far behind him, and always has.” In the end, it’s a sweet story about bitter life, contradicting itself into nothingness.
The two stories previous to In Quarters had narrators with a sense of character, while the latter two increase the numbness and alienation. In Etudes, characters had letter names (A., B., C., etc.); in this third story, a dismissive identification—as if all children and all adults were some abstract conglomeration of otherness—is all that exists:
Isolation engulfs the narrator here as a permanent fact of life. No joy can be experienced like the playing and laughing children that form the background of a scene, only the annoyance of their interrupting his reading. The images that float before him begin to meld despite their disharmony, going from a soldier chopping off a prisoner’s head to a naked girl brushing her teeth right in front of him completely seamlessly. In abstraction his isolation grows stronger. Through symbolic Adam and Eve interpretations he starts to instinctually distance himself even further from the woman who wants closeness with him, and the comfortable family life he’s surrounded by seems only a loosely guarded microcosm with ready potential for fear to penetrate and crumble it.
The last and longest story, An Old Story, begins with our narrator emerging from the water, like the progression of narrators throughout all of these stories ascending to the numb surface of isolated reality from their past dawdlings beneath, in their own interior full of fearful romanticizings. The deeper into this collection of stories we go, the less frequently paragraphs breaks exist, and by this final story all of life becomes something akin to a no-rest endurance test. Different permutations of fucking and being fucked get explored through these large blocks of text, along with tilting perspectives on dominance, submissiveness, masculinity, and femininity. Any sense of normal life begins to dissolve once we enter into a hallucinatory orgy scene, where, in the grip of complete unreality, terror immediately pervades. By enacting his own perversions into active reality, our narrator leaps from simple indulgence to becoming a prisoner of his own imaginative desires yet again, and jumps back into the water. When he comes back up in the second section, all of life still seems foreign to him, like someone else’s imagination in action. Former memories get mixed up and forgotten as he cuts apart figures in photographs, rearranges them, and tucks them away in the confines of his pocket. A prostitute who he frequented, but couldn’t remember, beats him up and eventually he trips into an underground gay sex club that turns into his own personal army, an army that eventually wanders around raping and pillaging. Any remaining desires of equality and comfort get fully eradicated by our narrator as he continues to move forward and finally accepts that all of life is eternal conflict.