Tim Conley, Whatever Happens
Publisher: Insomniac Press
2006, 176 pages, paperback, $16.95
this happened in Africa: A farmer, humble, patriarchal to his crops, while busy with duty one orange afternoon, was, without herald, beset upon with carnivorous voraciousness by a cougar from the mountains neighboring the agronomist's village. Cougaring the man down to the hot dirt, the mad giant cat lacerated with its horror-sharp teeth the villager's forearms and fingers and face, unwinding tendon, gnashing bone. Showered in the gravy-like saliva of Death made feline, convinced that those yowling moments of chaotic ripping were to be his last, the farmer called in his mind to God, and God, in his celestial sagacity, did respond: "With your torn hands, with your emptying strength, reach deep into the fell beast's maw and forcefully remove its drenched tongue." So it was commanded, and so it was done. Stunned by the man's counterattack, curious as to the whereabouts of its unrooted mouth-muscle, the cougar relented and bled, paralyzed, until nearby villagers macheted the animal into slabs. The farmer, devoted, pious, mangled, joyful, survived.
Absurd? Absolutely. Heartful? Yes, it is that, too. I use this paragraph of my own authoring to illustrate the meaningful commingling of illogicality and emotion, and to clarify with brevity all that is absent in Whatever Happens.
Tim Conley's collection of stories peddles with a grifter's smile the absurd. Consistently, tragically, Conley's words lack the heart necessary to animate his fictions from cadaverous tales pinpointedly targeted at smartfolk into experimental yet consequential fantasies flowing humanly with viscera. Like a torchlit Oulipo meeting you've mistakenly wandered into and which has nauseated you with the incessant nasal laughter of its esoteric collective along with the emanating, peaty smell of cheap tweed; like being forced at gunpoint to listen without pause to the anecdotes of an android Jorge Luis Borges (who is propagandized-the actual author, not his android-as one of Conley's influences) not programmed with a synthetic soul, Whatever Happens is, all at once, maddening because of its fabricated erudition and hollowing because it fails noticeably to duplicate the concurrent intellectual and spiritual stimulation of its progenitors' best work.
In the bloodless vein of torpid academic writings, which Whatever Happens postmodernly lampoons, the first story in Conley's collection, "Means to an End," serves as a numbing introductory paragraph analogue complete with thesis statement as its final line. Concerning a cynical optimist, Maurice, who, cloistered in his apparently French apartment tenement, has second thoughts following his allowance of a length of rope to a female neighbor, "Means to an End" previews in highlights the flaws rampant throughout Whatever Happens: cartoonish, unrelatable non-characters (check); a plot the most dramatic actions of which involve the faux-protagonist's knocking on doors and conversing in chafingly histrionic dialogue (check); a nondescript setting which may as well be a black, shapeless tarp (check); unearned, bludgeoning whimsy (check); unquoted dialogue for no reason (check); zany italicization (check); and, last, a drollness so smug, so postured, that you will find yourself literarily parched for the uncloaked sentimentality of a Jane Austen, or for the refreshingly unapologetic straightforwardness of a Dan Brown (check).
Mercifully missing from this introductory story, however, are the intrusively "playful" structures showcased in such later stories as (the also irritatingly semi-capitalized) "The greenhouse effect," which is segmented quasi-poetically, quasi-interestingly by numbered text-blocks, and "The Annotated Affair," which fails to innovate with its footnoted academic form so pitiably that you will wish--hard--that Conley had attempted to ape Pale Fire with more zeal. "Absurd! said Maurice, relieved," is the aforementioned final line of "Means to an End," as well as the thesis statement of this collection, and your reaction to its...kookiness...will prophesy your enjoyment of the total work; unrelated to how attuned you are to Conley's sensibilities, his clashing of the words "absurd" and "relieved" in that concluding sentence suggests that the absurd should not inspire merely the grotesque quizzicality we commonly prescribe to it, but also a soothing consolation because it, if only temporarily, neutralizes the mundane; in the absurd, he argues, there is emotion, there is wonder. Unfortunately, this argument, this beautiful notion, is contradicted continually throughout Whatever Happens.
The trouble is, when absurdity is injected into Conley's fictions, be it structurally or as a talking dog on the first page of "Good Faith," or as captured fairies in the last quarter of "A country called Roughage," the illogical relief he seems primed to elevate and cherish early on is marginalized by obfuscating, labyrinthine intellectualism (also reference "The Annotated Affair" and "Plot") and a propensity by Conley to either write away the absurd or to strip away its wonder, in layers, like the sloughing of sunburned skin. "A Country called Roughage," for example, introduces fairies only to have them tortured, and "Loss of an Icon" details a throng's exaggerated mourning of a celebrity raconteur as an intensifying but one-note descent into uninteresting hedonism and depravity.
Whatever Happens strives to effortlessly balance on the surgically-sharp razor's edge of "experimental fiction," and thereby its readers' expectations and desires are likely more skewed toward head games and rule-breaking for the sake of word puzzles and breaking the rules. It's a shame that Conley fails to develop his own heartful ideas (wonder, love, possibility), instead casting off their implications in favor of expectedly experimental riffs that, in their subgenre, are molderingly staid; the atypical, the absurd, the cougar-tongue-rippingly courageous move for an author of Conley's interests and talents would be rather to fuse affairs of both head and heart. Presently, his readers, abstracted to abandonment, wanly languor in the gray claustrophobic projects of his devising. No cougars will attack there; no holy voice will inspirit.