Ryan Boudinot has done many things to showcase the prestige and excellence of Seattle literature, but writing The Octopus Rises was not one of those things. The Octopus Rises is a collection of merely competent, semi-humorous Twilight Zone–like short stories. Like that TV show, almost every story is fueled by a Premise. A big "What if..." For instance, "The End of Bert and Ernie" asks readers to imagine "What if... Bert and Ernie were a gay couple?" Another story, "Chopsticks," asks "What if... cats were actually on drugs?" Another story, "Bleeding Man and Wounded Deer," asks "What if... someone was just a regular guy who worked a boring office job, but was constantly bleeding from stab wounds, all while embodying the old trope of a flawed hunter pursuing a woman?" Sure, most stories have a Premise, but many of Boudinot's premises are clichéd or sound like "an idea for a story." A few more example Premises from this book: What if one of the guys at work were actually a robot? What if my favorite band stayed at my parents' house?
There's nothing inherently bad about having premises that are clichés—there is some truth to a cliché—it's just very risky because it locates the tension outside the bounds of the story. The tension isn't located in the relationships between the characters, but rather in the reader's anxiety about whether Boudinot is going to embarrass himself by actually realizing a story about Nature reclaiming an office building via invisible fairies. Coming to the end of some of the better stories feels less like a literary event and more like a physical relief: Hoo-wee! I thought he was gonna fuck that one up! But in the not-so-good stories, he does embarrass himself. Many of those stories snap shut prematurely, or choose a half-assed, blithe closure, e.g., "And then they fucked."
The other risk of working with Premises is monotony. And, in fact, five of the 12 stories are essentially the same. An overconfident, brassy dude-figure faces a problem. At some point, he meets a woman. Sometimes that woman is a robot woman, sometimes she's a deer woman, sometimes she's a woman woman. In any case, this woman doesn't help him solve his problem, and then either they have sex or they don't. Jacob Covey, the book designer, illustrates each story in a different way, using different typefaces and drawings that often align with the theme or general vibe of the story, but this ends up highlighting the fact that the stories themselves are repetitive. I start to wonder: Why can't the stories be as diverse in style, structure, and approach as the illustrations that accompany them? More on that later.
Raymond Carver wrote tons of stories about heavy-drinking, blue-collar workers who were having some troubles at the house. But the language was rich, fresh, complex, funny, strange! The language in a lot of these stories isn't. Here are a couple of sentences from "Cardiology," one of the more compelling stories in the book: "If he had peeked in the windows when he arrived at his grandfather's house, Magnus would have certainly noticed something awfully wrong about the place. But instead he instinctively grabbed the doorknob and entered without knocking, as was his habit." Can I get an editor to cross out those needless adverbs? Do we need "instinctively" if we're going to end on "as was his habit"? That might seem like a nitpicky critique, but those kinds of sentences wouldn't make it out of an MFA workshop. And there are hundreds of these sentences in the book, all put forth with the confidence of chiseled prose, but without the restraint. The sentences pile up into a mound of blah that could've at least used a second pass.
On that same "this would never make it out of a workshop" tip: With the exception of "Monitors," which is pretty good if not predictable, many of the sci-fi stories simply replace "real world" items with "futuristic" items, which is the move Raymond Chandler parodies to great effect in a famous letter to his agent: "I cocked the timejector in secondary and waded through the bright blue manda grass. My breath froze into pink pretzels." As his sign-off, Chandler writes: "They pay brisk money for this crap?" Boudinot isn't that wild, but many of the sci-fi stories in here perpetuate the idea that the genre is just a bunch of predictable stories dressed up in astrosuits.
The book itself, however—the physical art object designed by Covey and published by Fantagraphics—is beautiful. Sometimes the relationship between the design and the story is awesome, as with that "Cardiology" story I mentioned earlier. The Premise is this: What if a city actually had a heart, and all the residents actually shared it, were literally connected to it to the extent that they need it to pump their blood for them? The title page displays a contour drawing of a heart with an artery extending from it. The drawing of the artery carries through on each page, a nice reminder that the reader is, in a way, sharing a heart with the book, with the characters in the story, with the author, and with the designer himself, which reinforces the central theme of the story, which is that we need other people to become independent. That's the kind of visual/textual/analytical nirvana you can reach with a collaboration like this.