DH: This is the first of a series of three reviews on stories from Brad Watson’s new collection: Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives. BW is worth taking some trouble over. His stories can be “terrible” in the older, more classic sense of being awesome…earthshaking. But what’s being shaken up is your own sense of composure. We all have a center of gravity that we would like to keep. But a story like ‘Terrible Argument’ kicks that away. It’s like your standing on a chair trying to screw in a light bulb and someone kicks the chair out from under you.
How can you take Brad Watson? How can you read stories that can make you so uncomfortable? A writer told me that depicting emotions is difficult. But there’s this great parallelism in the Aliens stories. It’s as if you had three mimes up on the stage. The most histrionic, tall and thin, represents your feelings. The second, more deliberate and circumscribed, represents your thoughts. The third mime, the most athletic, dressed in a track suit, represents your actions. They do improv. Now, that’s you. And that’s how BW writes characters, by having their thoughts, feelings and actions play off each other in a complex interplay. But it’s the passion of the writing that’s in the driver’s seat.
Terrible starts off like a fairy tale with that most awesome of starting words: Once. ONCE THERE WERE A MAN, A WOMAN AND THEIR DOG. In caps. In the first couple of lines: no conception, no kids or puppies, heavy drinking, arguments spilling out of the house and into the yard (a great out-of-control image), guest rare, hissing stage whispers, sock footed stompings. All this in a couple of opening lines. So this story has already had more intense action that some novels have…and all in visceral, eye-catching images.
Let’s step into this house. In a lower key, still minor: arguments over who should be filling the salt and pepper shakers, about who should do the recycling, about who is leaving hairs in the bathroom drain, about who snores and who farts. Their dog, adopted after abused and abandoned earlier in life has taken to compulsive eating. Again there is a superb list. (Brad, you wrote poetry, right?) carcasses of chipmunk and rodent, severed crows feet, turds of all descriptions. The dog shits on top of shrubs. Terrible Argument has emotions, all very graphically expressed. This couple creates a living hell and stays together because they are afraid that no one else would have either of them. They are all they’ve got. How many couples stay together, I wonder, because they think that no one else would have them? The dog, the dog, doesn’t want to run away either. It has thought about it but, like the couple, doesn’t think anyone else would have him, or that he would have it any better elsewhere.
All that dog has known is abuse and cruelty. That’s the world. So the dog cowers under a table and howls. And that howl takes possession of the whole story and the whole story howls. That’s when I put down Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives because I was about to cry.