Peter John McLean

Shards by C.J. Cummings (Reviews)

C.J. Cummings gave me a free copy of his new short story anthology to read and review. Previously he was part of the collaborative effort that is Birdsnatch. This collection of short stories is quite different than Birdsnatch, giving Cummings an opportunity to explore concepts that wouldn’t have really worked in the weird fiction/bizarro effort that Birdsnatch was. It’s always good for a writer to explore new concepts, especially because some of them will inevitably prove effective enough to be reused later on. Note how great writers like Hugh Howey periodically explore new genres and forms such as children’s stories and literary fiction, so that when he returns to writing science fiction he has a lot of new experiences to apply to it. For that reason, I applaud C.J. Cummings’ efforts.

The first few stories in this anthology are very subtle stories and require a fairly close read to understand. I found myself rereading stories like The Still Bridge, Facing Night, and The Light because the climax is rapid, soft, and the resulting denouement is usually equally muted. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I read a lot of short stories, many of which are from literary fiction anthologies, so I’m pretty well versed in subtle stories. However, these stories generally deviate from the standard methodology; instead of characters growing in a meaningful way, discovering something of significance, they rely bizarro or semi-bizarro shifts in expectations. I could have done without the most subtle of these stories, such as The Still Bridge, because there is really no growth that I could determine, but Cummings specifically labeled this story with the keyword ‘abstract’, so I suppose its probably meant for people who enjoy that kind of thing.

The only story I didn’t like was Just Right, which is a romantic tale that skips over the development of the two characters and relies upon a coincidental deus ex machina type of mechanism wherein the two protagonists continually reunite out of pure chance. I concede that part of my problem with the story was that it randomly slips in the omniscient narrative perspective, relieving the reader of dramatic tension and the opportunity to try and decipher Eve’s thoughts about the protagonist, Jacob. I’ve already written about how much I hate the omniscient perspective, so yeah I’m biased. But hey, Toni Takitani is a similar story that was made into a movie, so who knows, the same could happen for Cummings. I personally would have enjoyed the story a lot more if Eve’s perspective was never covered, so there was a lot more tension about how she felt. Her laconic dialogue, usually reserved for calling Jacob a “dick” or a “douche” could have really presented some interesting opportunities. It was the kind of story that could have been good with more work, but as is I didn’t really enjoy it much.

Other stories, however, show Cummings really exploring awesome new concepts in his fiction, concepts which I hope to see in his future writing. My favorite story is quite possibly That Aching Vengeance, which had a bizarre cowboy town murder twist to it that showed off all of Cummings’ writing skill at once. The setting is well built, without long winding passages of telling the reader what is going on, but instead a good example of Cummings showing the reader an interesting battered cowboy town with a formulaic cowboy turned bizarro psychopath keeping the story interesting. This is the kind of story I hope for with Cummings, as it reminds me of his writing in Birdsnatch, where a sex-obsessed girl abandons her psychopath survivalist father to try her hand at surviving the apocalypse. Yeah, I’m aware of my bias in favor of his weirdest most bizarro fiction, but hey, he’s great at writing it and I hope he’ll keep it up.

Cummings also has a talent for putting together quick believable and disturbing settings that create enough intrigue to draw a reader in.

He choked, his eyes opening and seeing nothing. Blackness. Pure thick dark space. He coughed, the smell of dirt and earth filling his lungs like smoke. He could taste soil, dusty and dry, old and bitter like the side of a penny. He couldn’t move his arms or legs, and when he tried to reach upwards or to his sides he just felt wooden boards, solid and stiff like the walls of a cabin.

That is a great way to open a story. The story it is from, Soil in the Eye, is a really great flash piece of disturbing fiction about a man waking to realize he’s buried in a coffin. As is common in most of these stories, the conflict is extremely muted, basically a protagonist struggling to accept that he has limited oxygen and is buried in the ground. Obviously there is no great fight scene, no love triangle, no deus ex machina, but there is a real conflict in the coffin and that is enough to make a good story. It was one of my favorites.

Overall, Cummings has compiled a good anthology of stories. I personally felt like a few of the stories like Just Right could have used more work and were much safer than they had to be, but the author was clearly experimenting with a genre and a style that weren’t his norm, and I applaud that kind of effort. If you don’t explore new ways of writing, you’ll end up going Full Grafton, and you never go Full Grafton.