Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Book Review: The Awful Possibilities, by Christian TeBordo

Planning a vacation this year? Want to go to someplace unique? Try the locales featured in the stories from Christian TeBordo’s new collection, The Awful Possibilities, out now from Featherproof Books. TeBordo’s stories are populated by characters that are often not what they initially seem, sometimes even to themselves. And the familiar locations of apartment buildings, lonely snow-covered highways, congested intersections, graveyards, and motel rooms (oh, fear the motel rooms) may not be the kind you’re used to.

Throughout The Awful Possibilities, TeBordo plays with subtle time and point of view shifts that bring out a surprising depth to what could be, at first glance, sensationalistic or exploitative themes. Some of his stories exist amid a landscape where even the smallest action has a reaction. Where tables are turned, where prisoners become keepers, where memories are real, imagined, or continuously reconditioned into new realities.

In “Moldering,” a man thinks and speaks like he’s living in the 1940s. His wife tells him to go out and get a new wallet, as his old one is moldering away in his pocket. The man heads out into the night, sure in his quest to look for his friend, the wallet maker. By the time he finds his friend, it’s clear that the wallet maker is no maker of leather items and is instead a drug dealer who lives in contemporary America. They are not actually friends, but acquaintances who knew each other back in high school. The man eventually gets his wallet, and a matching handbag for his wife. But how and why I’ll leave for the discerning reading to discover.

In “Rules and Regulations,” a father describes his list of rules for successful child rearing, which include restraining as a form of discipline and avoiding losing control. The final rule he tells us about is Do not let the child discipline you. From here the story shifts fifteen or twenty years later, as his two now grown children, a boy and a girl, recipients of said rules, have their own rules for disciplining their now invalid father. The boy is the disciplinarian, and the girl writes in her diary the new rules. But is she really a sister, and are there really two children, or just one who wishes he had a sister?

In what is arguably the centerpiece of this collection, the “Champion of Forgetting,” a girl is kidnapped by a band of rogue kidney thieves and forced to witness, study, and eventually participate in the practice of kidney stealing. Her kidnappers condition her to forget even her own name. As told from this girl’s close point of view, sometimes she’s “me” and sometimes “this girl.” The narrative stutters forward, then slinks back, and it’s up to the reader to put together the compartmentalized memory of this girl into a story. It turns into the horror landscape of a traumatized young mind exposed to, and forever altered by, her keepers. Eventually left on her own in a motel room, she knows only how to continue to be a nameless kidney thief.

Many of the stories peel back moments when characters are in extremis: arguments that, to an outsider, might appear random but to the participants are intense, baroque, personal. "SS Attacks!" deals with a misunderstood school shooting. In “Oh, Little So-and-So,” a man tries to help a little girl who appears to be lost, randomly trying to direct traffic in the middle of an intersection. She leads him to a cemetery, where he ends up helping dig a grave, possibly his own. Not all the stories traffic in extreme themes. "Took and Lost" and "I Can Only Hope That He Still Believes In Redemption," both deal with an item stolen from a man on the street, each with an entirely different outcome.

Each story is bookended with a post card that depicts a seemingly normal American scene—a shopping mall, a trailer park, a motel room, a ‘50s burlesque review. The scenes have been altered to include oil slick skulls and black drippings that could represent, in a more colorful world, blood. These are effective interpretations of TeBordo’s stories—life seen from those moments that play out below the surface of normal or classic America, barely containing primal emotions. Maybe TeBordo is simply reinterpreting America, albeit a different and often uncomfortable one. But then who’s to say what’s normal in comparison?

TeBordo chooses situations that, if you experienced them in your own life, you might question the very stuff of reality. These stories stay with you, gnaw away at your memory and beg to be reread. Some end in such a way that left me wanting a bit more resolution. But this may be TeBordo’s way of tweaking the form to give the feeling that each story continues on when you’re done reading, with or without you. And the way to continue with these stories is to reread them.


Robin said...

Great review! Your perceptions into TeBordo's slightly skewed world are compelling. I will definitely look for this book as one of my summer picks.

Dell Smith said...

Yes, he has a unique take on story structure and characterization. Well worth checking out.

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Thanks for the great review. The stories and author sound fascinating. :)