Truly it is said: there is nothing quite like a Ray Vukcevich story.
Oh, there are comparisons one could draw. I'm fond of comparing his work to that of Donald Barthelme: it's short, vivid, often surreal, sometimes absurdist, loitering somewhere in the borderlands of various genres, wise about human relationships, and often funny as hell. But in no sense is Vukcevich's work an imitation of Barthelme's; that comparison is just as close as I've come to an if-you-like-X-you-might-like-Vukcevich kind of statement.
I've always liked short stories, and Vukcevich's are shorter than most -- the average length of the 33 stories in his collection Meet Me in the Moon Room is about six pages. The collection thus provides a good demonstration of the principle that a story doesn't need to be long to pack an emotional wallop. Many of the stories here are clever, but (unlike many very short stories) they're not only clever; they also, often, provide interesting insights into the world and the people who live here.
I think one of the things Vukcevich does best is to externalize subjective perception by making metaphors literal, turning the subjective experience into a fantastical or surreal external reality, to the point where you can't say exactly whether the story's describing a subjective or objective world. For example, "The Finger" is about a boy discovering the power of obscenity; it works on both the literal and the metaphorical level. Another example: Is "Message in a Fish" the story of a man who's going mad because his wife killed herself in order to join the Others on the Starship, or are the story's odd events to be taken literally? And is the protagonist's fish a true Top-Hat Fish (Osteoglossum sombreroium), or is it an ordinary arowana with a plastic top hat superglued to it? Hard to say.
Several of the stories here are about the difficulty, and importance, of communication between people, particularly between partners in a relationship. Sometimes communication is made literally impossible, as in "Holiday Junket," set on a planet infested with kamikaze spiders, where the long-distance telepathy that the protagonists are used to is impossible. Sometimes it gradually becomes possible over the course of the story, as in "Beastly Heat," in which a man attempts to cross the street to talk to his alien neighbor. Sometimes the distance between the couple grows over time; in "By the Time We Get to Uranus," people have begun literally floating away into space. And sometimes the gap seems too wide to bridge, as in "Catch," in which a husband and wife are employed throwing cats back and forth to each other as the husband tries to understand why his wife is angry with him. In most of the relationship stories here, the relationships are portrayed as involving affection and love; even the characters who are at odds with each other often feel like they're on the same team, one way or another. Though there are also scary relationship stories, like the spooky "Whisper" (I was nervous going to bed for about two weeks after I read that) and the disturbing ghost story "Pretending."
Not all of the stories are relationship stories. Some, like "Mom's Little Friends," are about taking risks. Others play with language: "Rejoice" is the best rendition of Frankenstein as told by James Joyce that I've ever encountered. And some are laugh-out-loud funny: "White Guys in Space" is one of my favorite stories in the book, a lovely pastiche of all the Tom Swift-ish and Flash Gordon-y space opera there ever was, all set in motion when the 1960s are repealed by Congress.
This being the Internet age, the publishers have made three of the stories from the book available for free on the web, as a sort of Ray Vukcevich sampler. If you're still not certain after reading this review that you want to buy the book, stop by the publisher's page and read the sampler stories. One is funny and solid science fiction; one is spooky; one is nicely surreal and personal. And after you're done reading them, go order the book.
Copyright © 2003 Jed Hartman