There are times in life when the sun hits the window at a peaceful angle or the afternoon drips into evening so that it feels like we’re standing still. And in some sense, perhaps we are. We remain in our bubbles: sleeping, eating, living in the same spaces, save a few times when it becomes necessary — by force of internal angst, opportunity knocking or an insurmountable termite infestation — to move away from our state of contentment (but mostly because, for the love of God, those termites are everywhere, and what if they develop a taste for people?).
Justin Taylor’s collection of short stories, “Everything Here Is The Best Thing Ever,” encapsulates the lives of individuals who never get that wake-up call or who press the snooze alarm of denial so many times it becomes the rut of their existence.
He creates a snapshot experience into these unrefined and aimless lives, which occasionally borders on the existential. There’s the small-town kid contracted to kill his uncle’s cat. There’s the twenty something-year-old who runs out of money, moves in with his family and hooks up with his brother’s platonic girlfriend through sheer lack of willpower. There’s the obsessive Tetris player oblivious to his girlfriend and the nearing apocalypse.
It’s as if the only thing that runs deep in these characters is that which is shallow and lingers in front of their noses, which perhaps is the essence of these snapshot-type stories and their similarity to episodes of our lives. Now, don’t get all, “Hey, guy, I’d never play Tetris while the whole earth was on fire and let my girlfriend die! I’m not reading this to be insulted. And besides, I’d probably play Starcraft 2,” on me.
Taylor doesn’t appear overly concerned with the sequencing or unfurling of the plot. Most events of gravity occur before and after the reader meets the characters. Taylor simply extracts the in-between spaces from lives that don’t appear to be going anywhere with great speed or direction. The relatability is all positioned carefully below the surface (thanks, ENGL 200). The author suggests that in our limited spectrum of “vision,” unconsciousness to a broader life or even the needs of others is common.
However, there’s nothing common about the way Taylor depicts these rootless occurrences. Mundane actions are brought to life by his use of raw and primal diction — describing slaps on a video game controller and crude smells as “sexual” in nature.
A former Miami resident, Taylor places much of the book in the Sunshine State. The manner in which he constructs the weighty settings (oppressively humid nights, muddy roads and raging hurricanes) brings the raw and clammy power of an environment that seems destined to preoccupy its residents with crushes, grudges and distaste for change.
In the context of the short story in which it makes an appearance, the title seems to suggest the worthlessness of cynicism. The narrator sarcastically describes the man who spray-painted “Everything Here Is The Best Thing Ever” on the sidewalk as a genius. It’s clear he thinks himself the man’s intellectual superior, and yet they share the same provincial reality, even the same sidewalk, but the cynic finds no innocent joy in the world around him.
Perhaps even more captivating than the traditional and realistic short stories are the brief interludes that stray from any resemblance of the others — this being the beauty of well-written short works. I enjoyed most all the offerings, but in case of an exception, a 10-page skip revealed a new slate of characters and a new voice from the narrator. “Amber at the Window in Hurricane Season” plays out like a letter or soliloquy from one corner of a love triangle to another in second person.
In “The Jealousy of Angels,” Taylor sets aside his fascination with the apocalypse and Judeo-Christian themes (Taylor is a lifelong Jew) and depicts a man with a girlfriend too beautiful for earthly existence being righteously killed by Gabriel and a group of angels. Preoccupied more so with his own chore of cleaning up her body than her demise, the man proceeds to watch some television over a few beers with Satan, who points out the merits of a relative rather than absolutist universe. These offbeat tales make for an agreeable change of pace within the collection.
Taylor, a seeming everyman of the literary field is the author of numerous short stories, a regular contributor to the literary blog, HTMLGIANT, and coeditor of “The Agricultural Reader” (an annual literary magazine). He is currently at work on his first novel, which may have an all-together different feel to it than anything in this collection, in which the author offers a choppy summary as a platform for rich description.
I’d be curious to see how the parameters of a beginning, middle and end suit the unconventional pace of this up-and-coming young writer.