By Bennett Sims
Two Dollar Radio
Reviewed by Joe Sacksteder
Bennett Sims's work fills me with an ambivalent mixture of covetousness and proclamation that only the rare encounter with truly profound art can generate. I want to tell everyone; I want nobody else to know. Impossible that another reader could be struck as deeply as I. I begin to pity whatever sensation or pop culture entry or turn of phrase catches his attention—he will maraud its deepest secrets, expose them to the absolute light of scrutiny.
Sims is the heir apparent to Steven Millhauser, both of them combining a precision of language and an obsessiveness of thought to rival that of the maddest miniaturist. To me, his work is purer horror than anything that's trying to be. There's a fundamental basement of human fear that seems to short-circuit our descriptive capacities. We pass such moments off as ineffable or uncanny or grotesque because it seems impossible to plumb the involuntary reaction of something so simple as a shiver. It's the fear of trying to articulate what's fearful. But in his eleven-story debut collection, White Dialogues, Sims locates such moments in everyday situations—and refuses to turn away.
I've been teaching Sims's "The Bookcase" since I first read it in Zoetrope years ago, a couple times alongside Frankenstein. In her 1831 preface to that novel, Mary Shelley likens her wildly popular book to the monster it birthed, and in "The Bookcase" we see a storyteller whose favorite party yarn rises up to destroy the life of its creator. This American Life, as part of an episode titled "Over My Dead Body," solicits the unnamed narrator to share the story, which involves his battle with an octogenarian landlord over the eponymous piece of furniture. The narrator's girlfriend, sick of hearing the story, and increasingly bothered by its unsympathetic portrayal of Fredericka, the landlord, sabotages the interview in such a way that her boyfriend is browbeaten into a more accurate retelling of the story, one that turns its flat characters—senile villain and principled victim—into round ones, to the narrator's detriment.
It's appropriate that what they're wrestling over is a bookcase, an object designed to hold stories, because the bigger dynamic explored by "The Bookcase" is its characters' struggle to have their own point of view represented in the narrative, to be depicted as complex individuals rather than caricatures, the protagonists of their own lives. The narrator is ultimately forced to consider the farce from Fredericka's perspective: "That time, after my son died. And a strange young man moved into his bedroom. And terrorized me." If that narrative move—our pseudo-protagonist realizing that "Over My Dead Body" had never been about his body—it would be a pretty good story; its brilliance lies in how it further overturns narrative power. In the end it appears to be the girlfriend, Michelle, who becomes the final puppeteering authorial figure—however, this transfer of power is itself a quixotic illusion, as the duped narrator remains the ultimate compiler of the text. He retains a delight in the original yarn that makes readers question whether he's really learned anything despite his self-execration. "The Bookcase" thus critiques the potential selfishness of the artistic ethos (while rocking the bookcase back and forth with the desperate old woman inside of it, he realizes "I was willing to do almost anything—not just to win the bookcase, but to make it a better story"), but dodges didacticism by leaving us pretty sure that the narrator would do it all over again.
"Destroy All Monsters" begins with another unnamed narrator trying to read Henry Fielding's Tom Jones but falling prey to distraction. Sims's story shares many themes with those pre-modern postmodernist books of the eighteenth century, primarily the attempt by sentimental writers (and their satirists) to capture and suspend novelistic time as a means of warding off death. Sims achieves an effect similar to the famous digressiveness of Lawrence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, which spends several hundred pages narrating the first day of its hero's life. The entirety of the plot of "Destroy All Monsters," which runs twenty-one pages and contains no paragraph breaks, is that the narrator watches a gecko crawl across the window of his study, feeding on some tiny life form. His digressions include associative flashbacks—going to see 1998's Godzilla as a kid, staying up late to watch a Godzilla marathon—and flights of fancy that boggle our notions of scale, shrinking his consciousness down to that of the gecko's prey, granting the room's depth (via optical illusion) to the thin windowpane that reflects it. Piercing through what might be a silly gimmick in the hands of a less purposeful writer are glimpses of grief and mortal fear triggered by the passing of the narrator's father. Like Yorick in Tristram Shandy, this narrator sees a death's-head everywhere, and the connection between this chance encounter with a carnivorous gecko and his childhood certainty that death would come in the form of a giant lizard is the alchemy that produces this story's sublime distraction.
I admit that I think White Dialogues is a title that's on the bad side of weird. What appears to at first be a self-deprecatory jab at the whiteness of its entries' conversations—a story in the form of a This American Life interview; another (brilliant) story titled "Two Guys Watching Cujo on Mute;" and a neurotic attempt to navigate the potential eros of an e-mail about a game of Scrabble—is transformed in the title story into something else entirely. "White Dialogues" likewise takes the form of a pretty white dialogue, the thoughts of an embittered college instructor attending the lauded lecture of a rival academic in the field of Hitchcock studies. But "white dialogues" is also the "flashy term" the rival coins to describe his practice of culling films for the lip-read words of previously unheard background characters. So, white as in white noise, as in toggling the hierarchy of what's considered historically important and notable.
Just as "The Bookcase" continues to enjoy the raconteuring it critiques, "White Dialogues" allows us to both be captivated by the academic's unique approach to cinema and, through our narrator, to spurn its masturbatory uselessness. Coming from the academic world, I can relate to how annoying the attempts are of up-and-comers to distinguish their thing and give it a name that others will cite in papers. Coming from the world of background acting, including two weeks of fourteen-hour days pantomiming applause on Drew Barrymore's roller derby movie Whip It, I can tell you the words that I make my mouth form over and over and over in such situations: watermelon watermelon watermelon watermelon. This is a common tactic. Because of extras' unique combination of self-consciousness and exhaustion, we're simply not communicating impossibly coordinated messages preserved in time for future interlocutors to read deep meaning into, as our lecturer imagines.
"White Dialogues" reveals more than just two particular academics' delusions unfolding over the course of the story; it exposes this tendency behind literary hermeneutic as a whole. For example, in the English Department, our hippest new emphasis, the Digital Humanities, famously still awaits a working definition. As Sims showed us in his 2010 debut novel, A Questionable Shape, one of his great talents is in transposing heady philosophical themes into the world of genre horror. "White Dialogues" basically makes a sanity-devouring monster out of a host of twentieth-century notions that worked to estrange textual meaning from authorial intentionality, in particular literary theorist Stanley Fish's notion that interpretation creates intention, rather than the other way around. By the end of the lecture, our disgruntled adjunct has changed his mind about the importance of his rival's work—specifically because he has found a way to bend it to support his own pet theory that Vertigo is a sequel to Rear Window. Revelation quickly passes into terror, though, and our narrator's derangement turns the background actors' useless and suspect scraps into a foreboding message that, like the curse of a mummy, presages doom.
It's tough to read Sims and not be haunted, like the narrator of the title story, by old notions of genius. In his essay "The Literature of Exhaustion," John Barth—a novelist who very much believed in the concept of genius—describes the heroic author as one who can use the depleted state of literature as material for new artistic creation. Barth's metaphor is Theseus, who, guided by the divine gift of Ariadne's thread, need not test all of the labyrinth's many possibilities before battling his prey, but merely finds his way straight through. Sims's stories make effortless the possibility of building infinite worlds out of scant narrative content. The workings of the mind are both the subject of these stories and what generates them, a merging of form, content, and process that replenishes literature with the inexhaustible intricacies of the human brain run amok.