Jenga is a game whose end you know in advance: the tower's going to fall. The foundations are just too slight to support the increasingly dizzying height of the construction. You know that before you start, so you build build build until it all collapses. Them's the rules.
Writing is different. The writer doesn't know that his foundations are too weak when he starts (otherwise, assuming he is dilligent, he'd do something about it). The writer may have an inkling, may be concerned, but the writer tries his hardest. Sometimes, though, the writer just fails and, however impressive his tower, it's the foundations that let him down.
In his debut collection, The Ant King and Other Stories, Benjamin Rosenbaum is very often such a writer. In the same way that one too many games of Jenga, each with its inevitable climax, winds up souring the players with boredom, so too do Rosenbaum's stories grow tiresome. Even in and of themselves, a few are too heavy-handed, too conscious, or simply too dull to excite; but taken as a collection they grate even harder.
To an extent, it's unfair to judge a short story collection as a whole. The writer is at the whim of his running order, which he does not always design; the stories are meant to be separate, not movements in a grand symphony; where there is no unifying theme or subject, the stories cannot usefully be said to be comparable. But single author collections can and do open themselves up to an analysis of the writer, in the same way that a rock album might attract criticism of the artist's particular, even personal, foibles. Furthermore, The Ant King and Other Stories is a collection which focuses the attention on the writer—he is often audaciously present—and so, whilst editing and running order may wreak unfair effects upon the collection, ultimately it must be judged as an artefact in itself, rather than a mere repository.
On the evidence of this collection, then, Rosenbaum is a wildly intelligent writer with wit and a laudable sense of mischief. He is literary in the usual way, being concerned with narratives and their construction, and he exercises this critical thinking almost constantly in his stories: modes, forms and genres are carefully chosen for their particular quality and utility. If this sounds artificial, this is because it sometimes is—and that in turn is part of Rosenbaum's point. He is not crafting stories in the usual sense—not for him the casual satisfaction of a well-turned tale. He is using story as a means to get at texts, at how they work and what they do.
Take, for instance, "Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes,' by Benjamin Rosenbaum." It's all there in the title: the metatextual slyness, the modal archaisms, the blurring of the line between text and reality; the story which follows attempts to make good on all of these and more, fashioning an absurdist's Boy's Own adventure which isn't about alternative world derring-do so much as it is the arbitrariness of causal narrative: "perhaps Randomness, Pattern, and Plan are all but stories we tell about the inchoate and unknowable world which fills the darkness beyond the thin circle of light cast by reason" (p. 57). The sentence is typical of Rosenbaum: somewhere in there is a profound observation made by someone else, but its ornate casing obscures and even trivialises. Perhaps that's his intention, but if so the natural response is surely, "why should I care?"
"Biographical Notes" is deliberately flabby and studiedly random. The H Rider Haggard-style adventure genre is cleverly chosen to evoke the 'and at the last minute ... something bonkers happened!' resolutions of the Saturday serial. In this way, Rosenbaum enslaves form to purpose, ensuring that his Big Theme is reflected again and again in the mirror of his tale. It's a technically intriguing trick, but he rarely manages also to engage the reader's human sympathy.
"Embracing-The-New" might be Exhibit B, with a central conceit reasonably interesting, if done already by Star Trek (a race of creatures enjoys a symbiotic relationship with beings who bring with them their own memories and personalities). Here, Rosenbaum takes the interplanetary primitivism of Edgar Rice Burroughs and uses it to alienate the reader from what is on the page. Again, this is a perfectly decent trick in a story about the destruction of comforting knowns, but it serves only to neuter the reader's engagement as the story once again proves to be an exercise in form. Rosenbaum once more descends into over-writing:
The god, he had decided, was called Embracing-the-New. It was a terrible and wonderful statue. In it, a person naked of Ghennungs, like one of the Bereft or a banished criminal, stooped to touch a Ghennung upon the ground with his claw: gently, a caress. Vru knew that in the next moment, the person would take up the Ghennung in his holding-hands and bring it to his chest; the Ghennung would sink its fangs into him, finding blood and nerves; and the sweet rush of memories would burn into the person's consciousness: the first thoughts, the new identity. (p. 87)
I quote at length not to reach the word limit I've been given by my editor (though it always helps), but to get at how Rosenbaum tends not to worry about elegance at the lowest levels. The above isn't ugly prose, but nor is it very functional, and in this case functional is desirable over merely not ugly. Throughout the collection, Rosenbaum tends to ignore the basics in pursuit of his Ideas: it is not that he can't write, but rather that he forgets to. He wants to rush to the metatext without first providing good text to bolt it to. In so doing, he rather nobbles his nag.
It is the case, after all, that the more unusual a construction, the better the supports must be. And Rosenbaum can be very unusual. Take "Orphans," not quite the best story ever to feature Babar the elephant: "It is the holy chapter of my life. It is the foretaste of Paradise. When we ate brioches and jame on golden mornings, him sitting in the special chair I had made" (p. 99). Again, there's something just a little clumsy about this, just a little too far towards trying. And when Rosenbaum adds an elephant walking on his hind legs, the story too starts to wobble.
High concepts should of course be applauded. "The House Beyond Your Sky," one of the collection's true successes and worth comparing to your favourite story all year (and first published in this very organ, no less), has a beautiful idea behind it, featuring an almost omnipotent priest and a panoply of virtual worlds cascading ever outwards. In some very eloquent passages, Rosenbaum manages to build a whole world deftly and with affecting subtlety. Here, perhaps because idea is matched to form rather than pitched against it, he manages to find a voice which does not distract. The story is all the stronger for it.
In Rosenbaum's defence, making the reader uncomfortable is part of his wider purpose. In the roaringly metatexual "Sense and Sensibility," he ensures a dischord disrupts each page, again pitching genres and modes against each other not just to tip the hat towards Austen but to find the faultlines in all stories, in our very conception of the writer-as-narrator: "Do you think," sneers our interloctor, "when he simpers over fan mail in his inbox, showers, picks his teeth, grumbles about his bad back, that it has anything to do with me?" (p. 171) If we avoid recognising something of the rather traditional Romantic notion of inspiration in this, Rosenbaum's disembodiedly unreliable narrator is amusing to a point; but his arch cleverness ultimately distracts. The same problem afflicts the collection's title story, which renders Orpheus and Eurydice as a computer game, with some satire of corporate California thrown in. It amuses, but is lightweight; Rosenbaum's need to lark about, to do filigreed battle with genre conventions, detracts from the satire, rather than adding to it. Here, his chosen mode—digital farce—once again deliberately butts against his theme ... and once again this cancels out the both of them.
These are interesting experiments, to be sure. But it's hard not to come to the conclusion that it's when Rosenbaum allies style with content—as for instance in the straight forward science fiction of "Start The Clock," which reads a little like a street-level M John Harrison—that he scores his best successes. For my own part, I surprise (and depress) myself: I am not usually a fan of the dutifully genre-bound. But Rosenbaum seems to be a writer working towards his own form, pilfering from others whilst he's trying, and whilst still in his magpie phase he works best when stealing from just the one nest. He perhaps gets closest to a fully formed voice in "Sense and Sensibility," with its synthesising narrative presence; but there is still an unwieldiness there which is born of his own impatience with craft. ("But how is it possible to lavish such an extreme care and delicacy on a few people so intensely, without witholding it from the innumerable individual who might, in the cold egalitarian light of a logic which brooks no affection for persons, have as much claim to it, or more?" [pg. 179])
In "Red Leather Tassles," though, Rosenbaum tells a hauntingly surreal fable with echoes of the old Japanese tale of the crane wife. ("Oh! - thought the woodpecker—to at last be making love!" [p. 139]). There's something beautiful and intimate in the elegiac tone and metaphors of escape. Likewise, in "Fig," the sad fate of the princess's loyal tin soldier represents a singularly effective moment. It's not, then, that Rosenbaum's visions are too crazy to develop emotional dimensions; it is that he too often neglects the story in favour of the generic parlour game. If Rosenbaum were a fencer, he'd use the point more than the edge.
And so the archness and the knowing irony of the Jewish legend of "The Book of Jashar" undermines its very heart. "You are but a rabble of desert shepherds!" the demon Mezipatheh taunts Abigail, the wife of David. "If the creator of all things loves your people as his own, why do we rout you and make slaves of you?" (p. 116). This wriggles to the heart of not just this type of Biblical narrative, but much religious experience. Yet the narrative tone itself feels forced rather than natural: "Mezipatheh thought: after this verse ends, I will kill him. And then: No, after this verse." (p. 115) Perhaps Rosenbaum simply hasn't yet grown secure enough in his own voice to achieve the delicate balance that a story like this requires. Or perhaps he hasn't quite replicated well enough the chosen mode, or introduced the reader to it sufficiently.
He has suggested that this education was, in the writing of that particular story, something he was consciously attempting. He also makes a more general point: "by seducing [readers] with the virtues they're trained to appreciate, [the writer] can induce them also to sample new modes." To rephrase my argument, it is in this seduction that Rosenbaum more often than not fails: very often, there is not enough of the human stuff of literature, the smooth rise and fall of language, the warmth of emotion and sympathy, to support the flights of modal fancy.
"Other Cities," the other major story in the collection, works better in this way than most. It takes a sort of travelogue style, reminding one of Jan Morris's Hav in both tone and execution, and tours the reader through a variety of cities which all seem to stand for something. As well as Morris, "Other Cities" evokes a Swiftian voice, representing as it does a series of satiric parables which prize economy. It is perhaps this economy which leads Rosenbaum to shrug off his tendency for the florid, and focus instead on communication. Thus he achieves his own goal: the reader is interested enough by the tone to start to engage with the mixture and twist of modes. Even the humour feels less forced: "Ponge, as its inhabitants will tell you, is a thoroughly unattractive city. 'Well,' they always say at the mention of any horrible news, 'we do live in Ponge.'" (p. 149)
So Rosenbaum is a writer not without promise, who from time to time manages to spin all his plates simultaneously. More often, one or other flings itself to the ground, and the audience might understandably drift away. But at least he is trying to perform the trick, which is in no small part the quality which makes a writer worth watching. Overplayed, over-eager, and often rather tiresome, The Ant King and Other Stories does not always reflect well on Benjamin Rosenbaum, who comes across as a bit of a hollow show-off; but if he works on his foundations, the towers in his next collection may yet be ziggurats.
Dan Hartland has been doing this too long to think anyone cares who he is.