Undiscovered Territories, Robert Freeman Wexler’s collection of surreal, atmospheric, and not always accessible stories, encompasses most of Wexler’s published short fiction to date. It includes stories published in his 2008 chapbook Psychological Methods to Sell Should Be Destroyed, four previously uncollected stories, three stories appearing in print for the first time, and his 2003 novella In Springdale Town.
It also, if I may say so, presents those stories in the wrong order.
Now it may seem a bit odd, or at the very least a sign that the reviewer’s priorities are seriously out of whack, to open a review of a short story collection by going on about the story order. But bear with me. There is an inexact science, or at least an accumulation of advice and received wisdom, on the question of which stories should lead a collection, which stories should close it, and how the remaining stories should be arranged. Lead with your strongest story. Mix up the lengths. And so on. Insofar as there are rules, Undiscovered Territories does not follow them. Instead, it arranges them by setting: stories in part one, “In the Undiscovered City,” take place in New York City; the second part, “In the Undiscovered Territory,” includes longer stories set in surreal or secondary-world locations; the third part, “In the Undiscovered Small Town,” moves, as you’d expect, to small-town settings, with three of the four pieces set in Wexler’s imagined and liminal town of Springdale.
The problem with this structure is that it concentrates his shorter stories, the ones that happen to be set in hidden and liminal corners of New York City, in the first quarter of the book. Not only does this affect the book’s pacing—we get a staccato burst of quick but less substantial pieces, followed by longer stories with more plot and substance, when something more syncopated, less repetitive, is called for—but his shorter stories are not necessarily his stronger stories: Wexler is better when his characters go places and do things, and longer stories give them the space to do that. For example, the opening story, “Tales of the Golden Legend,” four vignettes about sentient bread, the people who are able to talk to it, and the telepathic network connecting every loaf on the planet, is arguably the most lighthearted piece in what is generally a much more grim collection. It’s also, well, slight; indeed, it and most of the stories concentrated in the first part are also the least consequential of the book. The stories in the second and third parts are much more satisfying—that is, if the reader hasn’t abandoned the book before getting to them. Interleaving the stories would have made for a more even reading experience.
That said, Wexler’s stories interconnect to the point where the presentation order could not simply be random. It’s not that stories are direct sequels, except maybe for “New Neighbors,” a Springdale story that continues the adventures of the protagonist from “Indifference.” But neither of those stories is enlarged by, or even requires, the other: the connection doesn’t really add anything. Wexler has filled several of his stories with little cross-references, cameos, and easter eggs. Callbacks abound and themes recur; protagonists in one story are witnesses to the central events in others. But it’s hard to see them as more than inside jokes; none of them are strictly necessary.
More fundamentally, Wexler’s stories inhabit the same emotional universe. There is a certain similarity to his protagonists and the situations they find themselves in. By and large they are men. More to the point, they are uprooted, unattached, and unhappy men: sensitive, socially and romantically isolated, unhappy in their employment, miserable to varying degrees of desperation, and above all else alone. In many of these stories, it’s into these miasmas of masculine anxieties that the speculative elements intrude, and offer a path out—whether emotionally or literally.
In “Indifference,” the emotionally numb protagonist, his wife having left him, is in the midst of what appears to be a depressive episode when a disembodied head appears in the apartment.
Such a fatherly head. Brown appreciated its silent presence, and though he hated to break that silence, he needed to talk. “I wasn’t always this indifferent. Did you know that my wife left me? It’s up to me to change. I know that. But I don’t know how. And sometimes, sometimes I like this indifference. I don’t think that makes me irresponsible, or cold.” He continued in that vein, but one-sided conversation exhausted him—He longed to hear the head speak. (p. 30)
Eventually the head speaks, cryptically and epigrammatically, as Brown pulls himself back together. In “The Baker,” the second of the two bread stories in this book, a former football player cum aspiring baker’s anxieties and insecurities take shape in nightmares.
These are also deeply introspective stories where the protagonists are alone with their thoughts. “Suspension,” for example, is the reverie of a four-armed giant after he has fallen in the snow, “The Secret Bag” the hallucinations of a dying man in a hospital bed. These are individual struggles that occasionally are reflected in their environment; where antagonists exist, where other people exist, they aren’t really part of the struggle. Communication is an effort, dialogue at a premium. Other people are not so much threats as enigmas, impossible to understand and out of reach. They’re … distant at best. Objects of hostility at worst. But mainly, they’re irritants. There’s not much in the way of theory of mind here.
The idea that hell truly is other people is most on display in “Darkness, and Darkness,” where Newsome’s internal anguish at having to share his recently deceased parents’ home with his wayward sister and her son is reflected by physical manifestations of darkness. And in “The Green Wall” the protagonist, Erickson, fairly seethes at his employer, their customers at the art gallery, and the tourists crowding his neighbourhood, while a rain forest that has inexplicably appeared outside his apartment window increasingly draws his attention—and offers him a way out.
Wexler’s longer stories are less claustrophobic. His protagonists are still unhappy, but the gloom is less suffocating. Escape is at least a theoretical possibility (except in “Travels Along an Unfurling Circular Path,” for self-explanatory reasons). And the struggle isn’t entirely internal. “Sidewalk Factory: A Municipal Romance” and “Mountain Story” are two secondary-world fantasy novelettes that take as their starting point totalitarian regimes with a penchant for gaslighting their way out of their problems (Wexler, in the story notes, considers these two stories thematic companions). Both feature protagonists who are cogs of middling authority in bureaucratic machines from which they are increasingly alienated. “Sidewalk Factory” is absurdist political satire, its narrative interspersed with increasingly preposterous Orwellian proclamations from the Lord Mayor of a city-state bent on keeping its citizens from having anything to do with the outside world. “Mountain Story” is about an expedition to investigate the sudden appearance, in what was otherwise a tightly circumscribed and delineated geography, of a mountain, which is treated first and foremost as a threat to the Grand Patronage’s authority. It’s more creeping horror than political satire—the mountain, its biota described in menacing detail, is in fact a far different kind of threat, and offers its own kind of escape.
And then there’s Springdale, Wexler’s uncanny small town in rural Massachusetts. Three stories are set there: the novella “In Springdale Town,” the short story “New Neighbors,” and an autobiographical coda, “Springdale Longitude and Latitude,” that gives us some insights into Springdale’s origins. If Wexler’s stories are frequently about unhappy men in uncomfortable situations they need to escape from, Springdale is, for a change, somewhere one could escape to. If you can find it, that is. If they accept you, that is. Springdale is not an easy town to find: absent from modern maps, it must be stumbled upon more or less by accident. Springdale is a polder only somewhat attached to the outside world, as a passage from “New Neighbors” suggests:
Springdale! The name conjured unlimited mystery. He had first seen the town referenced in a manuscript he copyedited, an encyclopedia of vanished colonial towns. The book described Springdale’s setting as “a jewel of Western Massachusetts, where a sparkling river chuckles past rocky banks.” Debate over the location of this jewel sparked his curiosity. Research followed. At the library, he found a travel guide from 1902 that listed Springdale’s various natural attractions, with no reference to its having been abandoned. A map showed the town’s location, a two and a half hour drive north of the city. Modern maps show nothing. (p. 276)
“In Springdale Town” plays with the reality/non-reality of Springdale with its heavy use of the nonfictional device of footnotes. Lots of footnotes. (I suspect, and not for the first time in this book, that the author was indulging himself.) The footnotes also layer on detail and build verisimilitude, whereas many of the other stories could be set on blank stages.
The characters in the Springdale stories are of the sort now familiar in Wexler’s stories: lost souls in search of a solution that in these cases involves relocation to rural Massachusetts. “New Neighbors” sees the protagonist of “Indifference” exchange the disembodied head in his New York apartment for something mysterious in the basement of the Springdale boarding house he moves into. “In Springdale Town” interweaves the stories of two men. Richard Shelling is a Hollywood actor who relocates to the town, which happens to share the name of a town in a TV series in which he had a guest-starring role. Patrick Travis is back in town after a long absence, now divorced from the ex-wife who called Springdale home. It becomes clear that Springdale is the town from his TV series, that Travis is the role Shelling played, and that the two doppelgängers cannot exist in the same reality. The question is whether one reality will win out over the other.
Springdale has enough untapped potential to sustain a sequence of a dozen or more stories (though the conceit of urbanites relocating to an ostensibly idyllic small town setting would get old after a few iterations). I wanted to see more of the place. Wexler has a talent for worldbuilding—for the strange and weird detail—that is frankly wasted on shorter pieces: the more his settings come into focus, the more compelling his story. It turns out that Undiscovered Territories is better when the emphasis is on the territory.