Hale’s collection is its own, singular thing – sharp and gripping, artful and devastating, with a unifying theme that coils like a spring beneath each story. —Mark Sampson
Call it book reviewer’s pride. I was infinitely pleased with myself that I had caught, without prompting, the literary reference in the title of Benjamin Hale’s new short story collection. Because I am a responsible critic, I went back and reread Kafka’s fabled tale “A Hunger Artist” before I even cracked the covers of Hale’s book, thinking it would prepare me for what I assumed was an album of short fiction that wears a Kafkaesque homage heavily.
But Hale resists this temptation. While the title story does acknowledge its antecedent in Kafka and borrows from his dark, absurdist world view, The Fat Artist and Other Stories is, on the whole, influenced more by famed footnoter David Foster Wallace, and by the gritty, violent realism of, say, Raymond Chandler, than it is by that Czech scribbler writing prescient tales about the looming horrors of the twentieth century. What’s more, Hale’s collection is its own, singular thing – sharp and gripping, artful and devastating, with a unifying theme that coils like a spring beneath each story. Hale is the author of a previous novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, and he has been (forgive the pun) hailed as a dark, comic risk taker in his fiction, someone unafraid to mix together tenderness and the weird. This new book lives up to such a reputation. It’s about what to do with bodies: bodies that have died and need disposing of, bodies that have aged and betrayed their owners; bodies that need nourishment and respect; bodies that have grown fat for the sake of art.
Indeed, the title story here is an unalloyed masterpiece. Tristan Hurt is an avant-garde artist who slogs through the duo battles of staying on top of the New York art world and hiding from everyone that he is, more or less, a fraud. He shares with the reader some of his more embarrassing secrets:
As a person, I was nearly as lazy as I was self-absorbed. I had never actually read very much. Almost nothing, really. All that critical theory in college and graduate school? All that heady French gobbledygook? Not counting the front and back covers, I probably read a cumulative fifteen pages of it … I knew the names of the writers I was supposed to have read, and could pronounce them with haughty accuracy and ironclad confidence that withered on the spot those who had actually read them.
(Despite his general disinterest in reading, Tristan does possess a rich vocabulary of ten-dollar words that had me digging with glee into the dictionary: bloviate, piccolo, petrichor, soporate, etc.)
Tristan begins a shaky romance with a creative writing instructor named Olivia who can see through his ruses. As a gift, she gives him a copy of her beloved collected stories of Franz Kafka, leaving a condescendingly harsh inscription inside: “Tristan— Here you go. Most of them are pretty short. Olivia.” (We soon learn just how precarious this romance is: Tristan discovers that she had bought a previous copy for him, but had to get a new one after she accidentally wrote “Love, Olivia” in the inscription.) Being what he is, Tristan immediately latches on to the story “A Hunger Artist” included in the book, a tale of a man who sits in a cage and starves himself as a work of art. But when Olivia breaks things off with Tristan, he goes in the opposite direction. Exiling himself to his New York City condo, he spends 10 months in near-total isolation, doing nothing but eating, drinking, doing drugs and watching online pornography. He emerges as a 500-pound fatso, broke and in desperate need to re-establish himself in the art world. After attending a hoity-toity party, he gets an idea: he will become his own artwork, the inverse of Kafka’s creation, gaining even more weight in full public display with the aim of reaching 1,600 pounds and thus becoming the largest human being ever recorded in history. Here’s his rationale:
The concept was elegant in its simplicity: to turn Kafka on his head. “A Hunger Artist” in part derives the power of its allegory from the sheer horror of self-abnegation. Why on earth would anyone deliberately starve himself to death? But in a culture of abundance and affordable luxury, bodily self abnegation no longer retains the primeval horror. Rather, the twenty-first century middle-class American must actively labor not to become fat. Thus eating becomes moralized behavior.
The project is thus: Tristan is set up on a large bed-cum-weight scale in a museum, with catheters attached to his anus and penis to pump waste away unseen from his body. The public lines up around the block day after day to both see him and bring him something to eat. Provided the gifts are edible, Tristan sets a rule for himself that he must eat everything his audience brings him: buckles of fried chicken, boxes of pizzas, plates of spaghetti, bags upon bags of candy. He inhales it all, and his weight climbs accordingly. The installation is a smash! Glowing reviews appear in the media, and the crowds keep coming. Tristan’s weight soon plateaus around 1,360 pounds as he tries to push through to his goal.
But then, just as quickly as the public embraced him, it soon loses interest in his project. The crowds disappear and Tristan’s visitors dwindle to a trickle. He actually begins to lose some weight. Here, Hale’s commentary is subtle but clear: even when the artwork involves our bodies, the interest in that artwork is capricious at best. The story is both rib-cracklingly hilarious and a little bit sad, especially when Olivia shows up at the end to visit Tristan in his now morbid state. She comes with news of the death of his father, and brings Tristan flowers as a gesture of condolence. What he does with those flowers after she leaves the museum is both deeply comic and wholly heart-wrenching.
It would seem the haughty, art-world humour in “The Fat Artist” comes naturally to Hale, which makes the fact that he is able to write in other, equally adept registers in this collection all the more impressive. One story that feels like the polar opposite of the title piece is “If I had Possession over Judgment Day”, a dark and intricately laced narrative set in a hardscrabble, blue-collar world. There are several threads and tropes weaving throughout this piece, and Hale leads us through them with a skilled hand. The story opens with images of satellites orbiting the earth, hovering like silent observers to the violence about to unfold. The narrative shifts and introduces us to two characters, Caleb and Maggie, whose relationship begins in childhood with an act of unmistakable cruelty. Caleb, age nine, is the habit of pinning Maggie, age seven, down on the ground after they’ve gotten off the school bus in order to spit in her face. But the way Hale describes this attack hints at a more sexualized overtone that foreshadows events later in the story:
[Caleb] would dredge up a glob of snot from the back of his throat with these exaggerated sucking noises, mix it with his spit, let it dribble out, coil onto her face in a long string. He liked to get it in her eyes and her hair … [H]e would slurp it back up like a yo-yo, chew on it some more, until he could no longer abstain from the pleasure of seeing it slopped on her face.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Caleb and Maggie fall in love with each other much later on, in high school, and eventually move in together for a time. But then Maggie leaves him for a guy named Kelly, and the two soon marry and have a child together named Gabriel. Caleb, however, remains on the periphery of Maggie’s life.
The narrative then shifts to describe Kelly in his struggles as a breadwinner and father. Maggie becomes a plumping, unemployed stay-at-home mom, and Kelly needs to work two grueling jobs in order to support them. The first is working on a construction site by day, and the second is delivering newspapers overnight using his frequently unreliable pick-up truck. Hale takes us into the very core of Kelly’s misery: he loves Maggie and Gabriel but knows that he is failing them, failing life, and that he is not quite man enough. The pressures of his hanging-on-by-a-thread poverty imbues each day with whetted despair.
Things take a turn when Maggie accuses Caleb of coming over one night while Kelly is at work and raping her. The narrative shifts once more and adopts the gritty, street-lingo diction of one of Kelly’s coworkers as the two of them plan their revenge on Caleb. The idea is to lure him to a deserted park at night and assault him with a crowbar. Meanwhile, the satellites in their sky look on.
While all of this happens, there is a subplot to “If I had Possession over Judgment Day” involving a photographer named Fred looking to take artful nude photographs of his intellectually precocious 16-year-old niece, Lana. Their conversations are charged with flirty literary allusions, and there is something deeply sexual about their interactions even though Lana wears full body paint for the photo shoot. The two of them end up in the same park as Kelly and Caleb during the attack with the crowbar, and the way these two narrative threads loop into each other is nothing short of brilliant. Indeed, all of the elements that have been in play for several dozen pages – the constantly stalling truck, the naked teenager, Maggie’s scolding over Kelly’s lack of manliness (“I want you to grow a dick,” she tells him at one point) come to a head beautifully.
Another stand-out in this outstanding collection is “Leftovers,” a tale similar to “Judgment Day” in its subject matter and well-plotted narrative. A soon-to-be-retired corporate lawyer in southern Texas named Phil Grassley is having an affair behind the back of Diane, his wife of 30+ years, with a young woman from his office named Veronica. While Diane is out of town at a conference, Phil invites Veronica over for an evening of dinner, margaritas, and fucking. Over the course of this date, we learn just how shallow and entitled Phil is: he looks forward to a retirement of drinking beer, sailing his catamaran, and enjoying these dalliances behind his wife’s back, without a care about how hurtful his actions are. As he takes Veronica on a tour of the house, we learn about Phil’s three children, the middle of whom is a screwed-up drug addict named Julian that nobody has heard from in over a month.
It comes to pass that, after Phil and Veronica have had sex in the bed he shares with his wife and fallen asleep, Julian arrives at the house in the middle of the night looking to steal the TV in order to, presumably, sell it for drugs. Phil hears the intruder and creeps down in the darkness to confront him. Whereas “Judgment Day” uses a crowbar as its weapon of choice, “Leftovers” finds Phil taking up the rolling pin he had used to crush the ice for the margaritas to defend his home and property. He doesn’t discover that the invader is his own son until he’s cracked him over the head. Not that it much matters – the assault reveals just how callous Phil really is, and it’s Veronica, now emerged from the bedroom, who shows Julian some kindness.
But things grow complicated when Julian comes to and discovers that his father is cheating on his mother. The broader intent of the story becomes clear: Phil, we see, has a life full of what Alice Munro would call the kindness of women, and yet he is completely oblivious to his great fortune, and cannot see past his anger at Julian for being such a fuck-up.
And a fuck-up he is: the boy is still in rough shape, a stoned and wrecked-out mess. And when he dosses down on the couch and then dies in his sleep after choking on his own vomit, Phil has an opportunity to rid his son from his life for good and also hide his sexual dalliances from his wife. He conscripts Veronica in his plan:
“Nobody knew where the hell Julian was for a month, or more. He was totally incommunicado. We still don’t know, actually, and probably never will at this point. Point is, this didn’t have to happen. You see what I mean?”
Eventually, she saw what he meant.
It’s striking how little editorializing Hale does as Phil concocts a plan to use his catamaran to dispose of his own son’s body in the Gulf of Mexico. The author keeps the moral gauge at neutral and does not lose the story’s propulsion despite the fact that his protagonist is an entirely vile human being. It’s an impressive feat in a tale – much like “Judgment Day” before it – about keeping a murder secret.
This authorial detachment is just one of Hale’s skills. Throughout The Fat Artist, he shows a talent for writing in multiple registers, for tackling a variety of subject matter and giving each of his stories its own rich, believable world. In “Venus in Her Mirror”, we have another dead body that someone is unsure what to do with. Rebecca is in her late thirties and working as a BDSM call girl under the name “Mistress Dalilah.” Divorced and wanting a child, she’s developed a close bond with a client, a high-profile Democrat in Washington whose name is Sam but goes by “The Representative” in their sex play. When he dies suddenly from a heart attack during one of their engagements, Rebecca is forced to confront both the realities of her own life as well as the secrets of the man whose corpse she must now deal with.
“Beautiful Boy”, meanwhile, shows us the confluence in early 1980s New York City of the murder of John Lennon, drag queen culture, and the rise of AIDS. The final piece in the book, “The Minus World”, set in Boston, shares a kinship with “Judgment Day”: Peter is fresh out of prison/rehab and down on his luck, turning to his brother Greg and his wife Megan to help him get his life turned around. Greg lands Peter a job driving a truck that delivers squid from the wharf to the biology lab at MIT. But like Kelly in “Judgment Day”, Peter just cannot get a handle on his various vices, and the story ends with a violent vehicle accident that snaps into focus just how desperate his life has become.
Individually, these stories are immensely compelling and brilliantly imagined. Taken together, they reveal a broader vision that is so much more enriching than that Kafkaesque tease in the title would suggest. I suspect it will be a long, long time before I enjoy a short story collection as much as I enjoyed this one.
Mark Sampson has published two novels, Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014), a short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015), and a collection of poetry, Weathervane (Palimpsest Press, 2016). His stories, poems, reviews and essays have appeared in numerous journals throughout Canada and the United States. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.