The Newsletter of
The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic
Volume 1, Number 5 (1998)
HERE to return to the table of contents.
An Anvil in the Pants,
An Ax in the Head:
The Final Trick of the Funnyman by Bruce Taylor
Reviewed by Paul Di Filippo
Copyright 1998 Paul Di Filippo
The Final Trick of the Funnyman,
by Bruce Taylor.
Ministry of Whimsy Press, trade paper, $12.99, 183 pages, ISBN:
The past few years have seen a number of stellar short-story
collections featuring literature of the fantastic erupt from the small
press scene. William Browning Spencer's Count Electric,
Don Webbs' A Spell for the Fulfillment of Desire, Patrick
Murphy's Way Below E, Stepan Chapman's Danger Music,
and Jeff Vandermeer's The Book of Lost Places, just to name a few.
Now to this illustrious list must be added Bruce Taylor's The Final Trick
of the Funnyman, a volume that mixes previously published stories with new gems in a
harmonious, evenly surfaced whole that yet manages to contain a variety
of reading pleasures.
Taylor's fantastic lineage is hardly that of the mass-market
trilogy. His spiritual ancestors are Franz Kafka and George MacDonald,
Lewis Carroll and Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee. His
main genre influence is Ray Bradbury, and even there Taylor puts a
peculiar spin on that sneaker-shod bard. Comic yet melancholy,
surprisingly bizarre yet compulsively logical (once uncanny premises are
granted), Taylor crafts stories that are simultaneously anchored in
reality yet adrift on currents of daydream. His sparsely sketched
surrealism has just enough hooks sunk into everyday reality to hold down
the wild and gaudy balloons of his outrageous conceptions. His authorial
voice is mostly foregrounded though certainly not annoyingly so as he
conducts the reader on strange tours through the lives of his hapless
characters. An exception to this are the passages of fine dialogue,
worthy of being staged, during which Taylor himself recedes.
The thirty-one stories in this collection fall into several
groupings not explicitly, but the hidden patterns are definitely there
offering a neat handle for talking about Taylor's various modes.
First off are the Bradburian pieces. Almost exclusively, these
are tales concerning the 1950s-era pals Edward and Roy and other kids in
their set. In a Beaver-ish milieu seeded with mysteries
and miracles, they confront the absurdities of the adult world and the
universe at large. Low-key, these linked stories offer the most quiet
epiphanies in the collection. They include "Child," "Looking at the Moon,"
"Wondering;" "Perfect Disguises;" "Altair II;" and
"Gift of the Rings."
Perhaps the least successful story, for me, shares
the same basic approach as the Edward and Roy pieces, but simply fails
to generate more than a mild uh-huh reaction. "Gregory's Vision" traces
the early life of one Gregory Bennet, who happens to be born at the
exact time of the Sputnik launch, and whose childhood then develops more
or less in sync with the Russian-American space race. There is much
effusiveness about the glory of space flight in the treacliest Bradbury
mode, but the end result makes one long for Gregory to be placed on
board the merciless spaceship in Tom Goldwin's The Cold Equations. The
general excellence of every other story makes this dud tolerable, yet
also makes it stand out.
Another, perhaps the favorite, Taylor mode is what might be
called the concretization of metaphor. This is a standard tactic for
surrealistic stories, but Taylor has just the right touch with it. The
strategy consists of taking a resonant tropesay, he was slow as
mollasses and then assuming the reality of it. For instance, in Taylor's
"Edward and the Sphere," malignant emotions that one might liken to
spiders perched on ones shoulder are granted full existence as literal
beasts. Likewise, "The Coat" reifies the notion of emotional armor. In the
hilarious "Dr. Frederick's Last Task," the medical afflictions of various
patients derive from patently absurd things such as an ax in the head
which they stubbornly and blithely refuse to acknowledge. In a story
such as this one, Taylor approaches some kind of noble synthesis of
Monty Python and Gary Larson. "The First, Last and Only Painting of Pablo
Caso" makes literal the notion of an artist putting himself into his
work. In "The Strange Fate of M. in the Odd Town of X," the bruised egos
and cold feelings of two lovers literally freeze their world. These
stories show that Taylor possesses a combination of rigor and wackiness
seldom found together.
Another grouping of stories might be thought of as Laffertian or
Sheckleyean, concerning mordant aliens and superior humans who try to
impart wisdom to the viewpoint characters, sometimes with dire results,
as in "The Breath Amid the Stones," where the whole globe is literally
enlivened.. Many of these stories reference the mystery planet
wonderfully named Opayknon. Consider, for instance, "The Little Black Box
of Brundool," which offers a curious genesis for black holes. Best of
these judging from the anecdotal evidence offered by Taylor himself,
perhaps best of the volume is "Onions," wherein a mans life is changed by
special Opayknon soap. (Is there an allusion here to Sheckley's similar
"Cordle to Onion to Carrot" perhaps?)
Very mystically affecting are a fourth cluster of heartfelt and
subtle stories reminiscent of George MacDonald's dream-journeys of
discovery, such as "The Golden Key." These include "Popcorn;" "One Short
Dreamtime Ago;" and "Oh, Them Dancing Shoes." My personal favorite is
"Friends," the tale of a man with a dancing figure of flame in his heart.
In this set of stories Taylor succeeds in conveying spiritual states of
being without degrading them to mere recitations of the what a strange
dream I had last night variety.
In stories such as "Vacation," "The Attendant" and "Alternate Reality
578.5," Taylor adopts the absurdist stance of portraying emotionally
resonant otherworlds untethered to any conventional setting. These
allegories are perhaps the strangest stories in the collection.
Finally, Taylor echoes Italo Calvino in dealing with cosmic
jester figures who seem to have a direct line to creation. Both "The Big
Brown Satchel of Mr. M." and the title story fall into this category,
allowing us to share the primal joy that comes with dealing intimately
with the stuff of existence.
As Taylor juggles his favorite talismans for us children,
mirrors, magic shops, artists, lovers, and animals among others we
become mesmerized, seeing gaudy visions materialize in the charmed
circle of his ever-shifting whirling display.