At a glance, A Plea For Constant Motion, Paul Carlucci’s compelling second collection of short fiction—the follow-up to his award-winning The Secret Life of Fission (2013)—looks standard-issue. With twelve stories in just under 300 pages, it might be a tad thicker than average; girth aside, the volume seems conventional.
Just past the package, though, there’s that Table of Contents. In the middle: “Dream of a Better Self,” labelled an Intermission. Before and after it: Act I and Act II. Is this a jump-the-shark moment, a jaded reader might ask, novelty for its own sake? Then again, a reader who takes Carlucci-the-creator at face value can wonder about the overarching story told by the six pieces in Act I and the five in Act II. What’s the relationship between those Acts, and in what way does that Intermission mediate them? If the conventional theatrical intermission is a break designed for a beverage, conversation and bladder relief, then what purpose does Carlucci’s disconcerting literary Intermission—a sharp left into a trippy, BC-set dystopia that culminates in filicide and cannibalism—serve?
The speculation inspired by Carlucci’s construction aside, what’s instantly notable overall is the author’s attention to form. In addition to the curious Table of Contents, he splits stories up with numbered sections or gives them serial narrators; for two, he includes a prologue and epilogue. These mechanical elements armour the stories; rather than coming across as wispy slices of life, they feel substantial and crafted and, also, playfully aware of how an elastic art form might be manipulated.
The volume’s totality is, moreover, a world away from sunny sketches. Like his Ontarian peer Cordelia Strube, Carlucci depicts places and scenes of conflict, failure, loss, violence, power struggles and, especially, explosive, pent-up anger.
Even mordantly amusing and lighthearted moments are tethered to a situations where love, satisfaction, ease and material success appear largely out of reach. When a sad sack/underdog burger-joint worker (and former teacher) with a self-made autocrat for a boss strives for the mildest of revenges in “Burger Life Fitness,” the modest victory is snatched from his grip. For another troubled teacher—this one introducing himself with “In the weedy school parking lot, while hurrying toward my rusted brown sedan, I stopped to smack the boy across the mouth, very hard”—the path to redemption is anything but assured. A third teacher (laid off, brokenhearted), in “My New Best Friend in Exile,” retreats to a rundown house in a ramshackle neighbourhood. He savours a welcome new friendship with the handyman next door and celebrates their completion of a new porch… until, that is, the police arrive with questions about suspicious activities across the fence and rotten smells wafting from floorboards. For these guys, catching a break has lottery odds.
And if they come at all, breaks are rarely sustained. When the ethically compromised handyman—so comprised in fact that the phrase doesn’t quite fit—realizes (after snorting lousy stolen cocaine: it’s “pretty much what you’d expect from a hooker dealer who hangs out behind dumpsters”) that he’s going further off the rails, he proclaims that “You don’t fuck up once. You fuck up over and over again.” Though speaking about his own lapses, he might as well be talking about the characters in the other stories.
Whether it’s two sets of parents holding a profoundly tense dinner to honour the death (by botched kidnapping) of their children (in “Even Still”) or, in “These Rats Have a Job to Do,” a deeply unsettling glimpse of one girl’s adventures in babysitting (she’s Bev, named after a character in Stephen King’s It, who, her elder sister tells her, “let all the boys have sex with her in a sewer tunnel so the group could have something to share after they killed the veil clown”), Carlucci’s focus—on have-nots, had-but-losts, will-never-haves—situates readers in an intoxicatingly unappealing Canada of hardship, failure and dreary, dead-end possibilities.
Although the Intermission takes the collection to a fable-like locale (a gritty, corpse-strewn fable, admittedly), the tone is consistent with the stories that precede it. Arguably, the lack of humour or light marks it as sinking deeper in the swamp of despair. Then again, it’s a dystopia in the vein of The Road.
After that break, Carlucci returns to a subsistence or hopeless outlook but further afield where misery is a way of life. Instead of Ontario or British Columbia, the stories are set in central Africa, including the Zoloft Hotel, which “seemed to bulge into the night like a sack of dirty, sucking lungs” and a Ghanaian slum—an “infamous, shit-strewn apocalypse [where] scrap collectors are burning electronic waste on the shores of an irreparably spoiled lagoon, and their noxious infernos cast stick figure shadows across a terrain of shattered plastic and shredded clothes.”
Completely absorbing (in a guided-tour-through-hell kind of way), the stories sketch poor choices and malfunctioning moral compasses with a festering or atrophied backdrop of corruption, brutality, abuse and death.
An outstanding piece in a rewarding collection, “Way Down the Mercy Hole” begins with kindhearted 13-year old Ramona rescuing abandoned kittens. In case anyone accuse Carlucci of sentimentalism, soon after there’s the strangling death of Ramona’s grandmother, a woman with a virulent form of dementia: “always screaming at windows, always cocksucker and motherfucker, always incontinent, violent, stricken with tears and grief and mucus”. Taken to Zambia to help spread God’s word, she then experiences an entirely unprecedented series of life challenges. As they did with Ramona’s counterpart babysitter in Act I, any reader will hope for the best while knowing the futility of that, since they’ll be reminded of wisdom from Ernie, the caretaker of Ramona’s grandmother, and her eventual murderer: “The world is an ugly ball of shit, Ramona. You just can’t be too gentle out there, can you?”
Astoria | 290 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN# 978-1487000110