There is something about reading a short story that really gives you a feel for someone's ability as a writer.
I think it has to do with the space, or the lack thereof. In a novel, there's room to hide inadequacies, to write in a roundabout fashion if necessary. But in short fiction, space is paramount. Like living in New York City, I imagine, or one of those 240 square-foot Ikea apartments.
In the seven stories in this collection, Hale crafts seven very different little worlds, full of characters with their own backgrounds, longings, worries, and lives. He is able to put all of this together with the greatest ease, precise characterization, and compact usage of language. All in such a way that draws the reader into the story, wanting to learn more about these people.
And, in the way of truly great writers, Hale is able to tell you more about the character than you are aware you are learning—that whole show-don't-tell thing your teacher is always harping on about. Flawless. You won't even notice it's happening.
I was lucky enough to get to go to a reading of Hale's (he grew up in Boulder, CO, where I'm from—funnily enough, his mom taught my high school IB World History class!) and I'm so glad I went. He is as eloquent as his stories and I will have to pick up his novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore.
Hale is one of those people who can offhandedly quote writers in a completely non-pedantic way. It's inspiring. I'd love to have taken class with him when I was in school! He is a great reader as well—which not all writers are. He read from the last story, "The Minus World," and completely captured the voice of the narrator, Peter.
The stories follow characters on the fringes. Peter, a recovering drug addict, is getting one last chance when his brother hooks him up with a strange new job hauling squid for MIT scientists at the crack of dawn. He's probably destined for failure. But you're rooting for him anyway.
Weirdly, all of these stories live in our world; even at their oddest moments Hale has us on the hook. One of those stranger-than-fiction things, I guess. He doesn't overuse or over-tell. There is just enough information to let the reader fill in the blanks of the world with their own experience.
The opening story, "Don't Worry Baby," is quiet but memorable: three fugitives are on a plane, one a mother with a small infant. She accidentally ingests LSD that the other two are enjoying and the baby gets high through her breast milk. Suffice to say he doesn't have an enjoyable trip, but that isn't even the crux of the story.
Where Hale really succeeds, for me at least, is in the finish. He has a knack for the surprise ending—for setting up every detail so perfectly and then pulling out that one Jenga stick that topples the whole tower. And he leaves you to pick up the pieces, to imagine what comes next. I really had to take some time after each story to think about what the endings meant, and they really stuck with me! His carefully wrought worlds mattered to me when they all came tumbling down for the characters.
The crowning jewel of the collection is definitely the title story. Tristan is a performance and experimental artist who delights in the grotesque and absurd. He pushes the envelope, too far, but the critics seem to love it. His newest piece of art is himself: eating whatever viewers bring him, eating constantly in a glass box, trying to become the fattest person in the world while he slowly kills himself. It brings to mind what people are willing to do for art and what art really means. How art consumes and us, how we consume it, how it sweeps around like fads: huge one moment and completely obscure the next.
A great collection with writing that rivals Adam Johnson's National Book Award winning collection from last year, Fortune Smiles. Definitely worth picking up if you love short stories. If you tend to turn up your nose, think again. They are the mark of a truly great writer and you don't want to pass this one up.
Get your copy of The Fat Artist: and Other Stories
Find out more about the author, Benjamin Hale
Find out more about the publisher, Simon & Schuster
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Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.