About the Author:
Jacob M. Appel’s first novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, won the Dundee International Book Award in 2012. His short story collection, Scouting for the Reaper, won the 2012 Hudson Prize and will be published by Black Lawrence in November 2013. Appel has published short fiction in more than two hundred literary journals including Agni, Alaska Quarterly Review, Conjunctions, Colorado Review, Gettysburg Review, Iowa Review, Pleiades, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Southwest Review, StoryQuarterly, Subtropics, Threepenny Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and West Branch. He won the New Millennium Writings contest four times, the Writer’s Digest “grand prize” twice, and the William Faulkner-William Wisdom competition in both fiction and creative nonfiction.
Einstein’s Beach House Stories by Jacob M Appel Reviewed
Authors of short stories have no choice but to wrestle with harsh limitations of space, often including a prescribed cap on the number of words. (Beyond 5,000 words there be monsters?) They must try to stretch and dance within what may not be very friendly confines at all. Some writers are crafty yogis within these boxes, others just glorified Styrofoam. In short stories the full character arcs we expect from novels and plays are reduced to mini-arcs (segments, really) or even mere snapshots. Flash, goodbye, thanks. Instead of well-developed climaxes, readers get rushed quickies. But this does fit the diminishing attention spans of our day and age. Concision please, hurry up, we need to get back to our text messages ASAP and frankly we probably won’t brb, because on the Internet and our phones there are extremely alluring monsters indeed. Meanwhile, cobwebs collect on our books.
True masters of the genre actually frequently wrote novellas, stories that don’t seem all that short by present-day standards. Dostoevsky’s “The Double,” for instance, is 140 pages in the small print of most editions; by comparison, his touching “A Gentle Creature,” at 45 pages, seems like an espresso shot on a fast-plummeting elevator. Sometimes we enter a world, meet these characters, and are thrown into a narrative to think, “Wow, gimme more, this should be a full novel!” Other times it’s “Ugh, this should be nothing.” Some stories in their brevity seem like little more than fleshed out poems, although that can be very satisfying. Occasionally, a rare short story finds its way to the Goldilocks Zone and seems just right—not too long, not too short, not too bloated, not too scant. Generally, though, the most we can hope from any anthology of the form, whether it’s by one author or several, are more hits than misses, more stories that stand on their merits rather than just feeling like discarded ideas that weren’t good enough for a longer work. “Well, at least this one was over quickly” is not a ringing endorsement. A small empty box is still an empty box. A small waste of time is still a waste of time.
Jacob M. Appel’s new collection of short stories, Einstein’s Beach House, happily has many more hits than misses. The prose is tight, elegant, with a careful attention to rhythm. The stories are always well-crafted, if not necessarily all that original. “Hue and Cry,” for example, is a mere twist—albeit an interesting one—on To Kill a Mockingbird, updated for a 2014 world, with the names changed, etc.: take Atticus Finch, give him Mad Cow disease; make Boo Radley a registered sex offender; let’s have Scout be an admitted Lesbian instead of just a Peppermint Patty tomboy, and so on. Sneak into the local weirdo’s house, yadda yadda, been there done that. And one story on excessive attachment for an unusual pet in New York City was more or less tolerable (“La Tristesse des Heirissons”), but the second (“Sharing the Hostage”) was overkill. It’s just a question of if you prefer a hedgehog or a turtle.
Of course, a turtle is never just a turtle, whether he is smoking a cigar or not. Throughout the book the symbolism is painfully obvious at times, consistently reinforcing the primary spirit of the stories as a whole: mostly wistful explorations of the conflict between romantic fantasy and reality—raising in particular the issue of whether it is better to choose the dream (and the dreamer) or good sense (and the sensible partner). This is the source of the domestic strife in stories like “Einstein’s Beach House” and “Strings,” and also the basis of the nostalgic tension in the wonderful “Limerence” (the teenage crush recalled 25 years later). It is true of even the intriguing “The Rod of Asclepius,” although at first glance it may seem to be more of a revenge tale. But told from the point of view of the daughter recalling the various lies and crimes of her father that she had witnessed as a young girl, it fits in nicely with the whole.
When dreams can no longer escape reality, it is reality that tends to win the battle and rather brutally so, just as drab adulthood prevails over the bright hopes and carefree days of childhood. Most writers know this all too well, despite our concentrated efforts to evade the full weight and responsibility of “real” life. But that does not mean the victory is right or good. Viva Pollyanna. And, uh, don’t quit your day job.
At their best, Appel’s stories are entrancing, and even when they feel too familiar or repetitive, the writing is polished enough—and the main themes compelling enough—to maintain the attention and admiration of readers.
Reviewed by Royce Grubic
January 20, 2015