“The American highway is a self-contained system, Stan thought. Its rest stops have video games, bathrooms, restaurants, and gas stations. There’s no reason ever to leave the interstate highway system, its deadness and perfection and freedom. When you do reach your exit, you always have a slight sense of loss, as when awakening from a dream.”
The title story of this collection, “The Ant King” is absolutely hilarious. I first heard this narrated on the Starship Sofa podcast. While simply reading it isn’t as funny as listening to it, I found it just as funny the second time around as the first.
We get great lines such as “Wile E. Coyote is the only figure of any integrity in twentieth-century literature.” There’s a petulant teenager who says things like “Your kind will be first up against the wall when the revolution comes!” when asked his/her gender. When another character is asked what his sexual orientation is, he replies, “about 80-20 straight”.
The main character, Stan, joins a support group after his girlfriend inexplicably turns into gumballs. He then starts a gumball company which becomes hugely successful. He eventually ends up inside a video game where the ridiculousness of carrying multiple items is pointed out: “Stan looked down at the crook of his arm, where he was uncomfortably carrying a rod, an axe, a loaf of bread, and a key.” His friend Vampire guiding him through tells him to do things to get extra points when all he wants is to rescue his girlfriend. Vampire ends up betraying him and starts working for the villain, explaining, “This is just the career move I think is right for me right now.”
When Stan gets fired from his own company, he’s told “we want you to enjoy your indefinite unpaid leave.” He becomes a bum, but “at campfires he felt alienated from the other bums–he didn’t know any of the songs they liked, and they didn’t want to talk about Internet stocks.”
The next story has the unwieldy title of “Biographical Notes to “A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes,” by Benjamin Rosenbaum”. It takes place in a world in which cause and effect are fiction. There are air pirates and talking ants, so it’s a lot of fun. I particularly liked the moment when the narrator tries to cut a cord with a knife, but it goes wrong: “My strength, as it happened, was extremely insufficient. The tether twanged like a harp string, but was otherwise unharmed, and the dagger was knocked from my grasp by the recoil.”
This story also contains the best description of being a writer I’ve ever come across: “It is said we fabulists live two lives at once. First we live as others do: seeking to feed and clothe ourselves, earn the respect and affection of our fellows, fly from danger, entertain and satiate ourselves on the things of this world. But then, too, we live a second life, pawing through the moments of the first, even as they happen, like a market-woman of the bazaar sifting trash for treasures. Every agony we endure we also hold up to the light with great excitement, expecting it will be of use; every simple joy we regard with a critical eye, wondering how it could be changed, honed, tightened, to fit inside a fable’s walls.”
I’d say this qualifies as meta-fiction since the story comments on its own implausibilities. Another great line from this one: “Which is more real — a clod of dirt unnoticed at your feet, or a hero in a legend?”
“Start the Clock” takes place in a world in which aging has stopped. The narrator doesn’t mind being a child forever, but has a friend who wants to start aging again.
“The Blow” is a flash fiction story giving us a realistic look at a detective receiving a blow to the head. Instead of a brief moment of unconsciousness as in most fiction, the detective gets permanent brain damage as would happen in real life.
“Embracing-The-New” features aliens who inherit memories from each other. A great story in which the aliens are truly alien.
“Orphans” features a talking elephant. Here’s a quote I liked: “They were terrified, yet the great web of etiquette and propriety that holds our town steady–like a fly already mummified, and not yet eaten, in a spider’s web–kept them from running and screaming, from saying anything.”
“Fig” is a delightful etiological story that explains why girls like cats.
“The Book of Jashar” contains a reference to Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49. It’s a story about the Biblical King David squaring off against a vampire. I didn’t care much for this story overall, although I did like this line: “Why is David chosen, and why Israel? That God’s love may be an arbitrary and capricious passion is as unnerving to us as it was to Mezipatheh. Yet, if our theology cannot encompass the arbitrariness of Divine favor, how can it hope to deal with our present world?”
“The House Beyond Your Sky” is a story of a six-year-old girl with an abusive father who ends up becoming instrumental in the end of the universe.
“Other Cities” isn’t a story, but rather a series of descriptions of fantastic cities. For example: “Oddly, deep in their hearts, the citizens of Ponge are happier than those of Strafrax. Ponge’s motto is “What Did You Expect?” and the Pongeans (etc.) whisper it to themselves in bed at night as they think back on the day’s events. “Well, what did you expect?” they think smugly, pugnaciously. “What did you expect? We live in Ponge.” Strafrax’s motto is “Anything Can Happen,” and you can imagine where that leads.”
I like the implication here that pessimists are happier than optimists. Pragmatism is also favored over idealism. In another city, people looking for heaven end up creating it right where they are. Another city has achieved utopia due to being caught in a time distortion. There’s a city in which solving crime is just a fad. A city of legend gradually transforms into a tourist destination. Another city gets destroyed by monsters every once in a while. I really loved this piece.
“Sense and Sensibility” is a hilarious retelling of the classic story taking place among tiny people living on a giant’s face who himself lives on an even bigger giant. He breaks the fourth wall by directly addressing the audience throughout.
“A Siege of Cranes” is a quirky story about a man trying to track down the witch that destroyed his home town. Along the way, he encounters a jackal-headed man obsessed with proper funerary rights and a djinn who lends him a flying carpet. Whimsical, tragic, and funny in places.