by David Means
IN STORY AFTER story, David Means forces language to crawl like a pipe snake through the knotted skein of isolated incidence, searching for an opening through which to plumb some deeper, denser relevance. Unfortunately, what's revealed rarely proves all that interesting. It's not enough to simply show, as he does in the story "Coitus," that people think about all sorts of weird stuff while they're screwing. Nor is this psychoanalytic truism salvaged by weighting it down with the albatross of one character's unresolved grief. Inorganic epiphanies ring especially hollow in the confines of short fiction, and Means' poor decisions betray a lack of trust that is ironically ironic: He's a realist who finds unadorned reality incapable of coughing up any measure of literary value. In fact, the only story where Means' neo-modernist prose pays off--in the brilliantly, subtly involuted "The Widow Predicament"--does so precisely because he resists the temptation to lash undue gravity to his fictional rigging.
There is, hanging about the collection, an atmosphere of heady detachment that I found, well, intellectually suspect. Means appears to believe that some of our more abysmal truths can be teased out by a sort of practiced amorality; an example of this can be found in the book's titular story, where his voluptuous description of flame-throwers spewing into wartime foxholes ends with the lines, "Lovely. Lovely." The problem here is not the harshness of the sentiment--good fiction should be allowed such brutal reckonings--but the sense I get that Means' heart isn't really into it. His Joycean (or is it Woolflike?) pose of atheistic omniscience is too strained and mechanical, which causes his writing to come across as disingenuous, even belabored.