Book: Eyeballs Growing All Over Me… Again
Author: Tony Rauch
Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection, bizarro, gently odd
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It has enough qualities of bizarro and the gently odd that it is not mainstream reading fare.
Availability: Published by Eraserhead Press in 2010, you can get a copy here:
Comments: I’ve read Rauch before and found his collection of short stories in the book Laredo to be serviceable and entertaining enough to be worthy of a good review. However, Eyeballs Growing All Over Me… Again is a better collection. Less verbose, less neurotic, more confident – this collection is all together a tighter, cleaner, more relevant book. Rauch’s confidence as a storyteller has improved since I last read him. His stories show their purpose without a lot of hemming and hawing, sometimes even eschewing what I would consider a typical ending or a normal resolution. Not every story in this collection worked for me, but those that did not strike a chord likely failed to reach me for subjective reasons. With one exception, there isn’t an objectively bad story in the bunch.
That is not to say there were not problems. Like almost every bizarro book I read, this book had editing problems that were intrusive enough for me to notice. It’s a shame when an author writes a very good book and routine editing does not catch basic mistakes. This is an issue I continue to have with bizarro books as a whole and one I suspect will not go away anytime soon, yet I also suspect I will keep mentioning it until it stops annoying me. The most egregious issue with this book is that hyphens and em-dashes are used interchangeably. The interruption when I read hyphenated words and had to go back because I realized they were hyphenated and not words connected by an emdash was intrusive to the flow of the book. Perhaps this is a problem only in the e-book. Perhaps it was caught and I was reading an old copy. Who knows, but bear in mind this book did not escape the problem I often have with bizarro editing in other areas as well. On the other hand, this book does overcome one of the biggest complaints I personally receive about bizarro – the books are too short. While I don’t mind paying even for short books, I know many look at book purchases using a cost-benefit analysis and often find bizarro books too short for the price. That won’t be a problem with this Rauch collection.
This book is divided into three sections of stories and there are too many for me to discuss all of them, so I will stick to the ones I consider to be the best, though interestingly, I think the story from which this book takes its title is the weakest in the collection.
The collection begins with the story, “The Stench.” A man comes home to find an enormous, very smelly monster has taken up residence in his home while he was away. His wife is wearing an inhaler mask and has no good explanation for why the monster is there other than it may have wandered in because it’s been hot outside. Still, they play host to the creature, exercising a mild, suburban politeness.
The beast turns its big shaggy brown head to look at me.
Whatever it is, it’s an ugly mother, that’s for sure. I stand and nod to it in a friendly greeting, then tilt my head to look at it one way, and then another. I step forward, hang my hat on the top of the coatrack without looking, and walk across the living room and sit down on the couch, settling in next to the brown, raggy beast. I look him over. Gnats buzz about him. He holds a glass of water on his leg. At first glance, in proportion to him, it looks like a glass of water, but it’s actually an entire plastic pitcher of water.
Despite having a monster in their house, the couple go about their evening and retire to bed wearing inhaler masks, bickering gently over what they should do about the beast. They decide that if the thing is to stay in the house, they should trim it and wash it like one would a stray dog, but when they go to find it, it is gone. They feel vaguely disappointed and the man feels like he missed a chance to contribute to society in some way. He concludes:
“Honey, let’s have children,” I exhale and nod desperately. “Lots and lots of children.”
Where the Wild Things Are played itself out in his home and while not averse to it, the man and his wife decided to clean and sanitize the monster, to make it a family member, rather than revel in the mystery of it, wearing masks to blunt the reality of what we all overlook when we are children – that our fantasies never work in real life and can all too often stink outright. But rather than mourn that lost innocence, the man decides to create more innocence, so that the next time a monster comes in, the monster will be appreciated for what it is. I really liked this story.
In “Gigantic” a huge robot rips the roof off a couple’s house. The man and woman have a strange relationship with the robot, a relationship from the past, and they sense the robot’s loneliness as it picks its way delicately through the neighborhood.
“Send Krupac Through the Portal” is a story that crams into it all kinds of unlikely elements. A lovelorn “nice guy,” time travel, government conspiracy, the number 23, quantum physics in the form of string theory and so much more. A man who loves and is not loved in return decides to visit other dimensions because the object of his affection lets him down easy, telling him:
…that maybe in another time, another place, we were meant to be together, but that she just doesn’t feel it in the here and now. Not now. She just needs time, she says. Maybe in a little while. Maybe in the future. Maybe.
The narrator finds access to a technology that will permit him to find all his other selves, the derivations of himself spread out across dimensions, the copies of himself as he made slightly different decisions and ended up with a different life. His friend Desmond offers him the following opportunity:
He’s thinking maybe the lab guys can zip me into another time stream one of these nights and maybe I can find a Margo that is interested in starting a relationship with me there. She might not even know me at all in one of those other timelines as our paths may not have crossed due to various arbitrary factors that would’ve kept us apart.
So the techs find a parallel world wherein the protagonist died young, several of them where he no longer exists and will not encounter himself, and he sets off to find his love, stalking her across dimensions, certain his life in that current dimension will in no way compare to the potential bliss if he can only find Margo in that other place where she promised him she could possibly love him.
The “New Kid” is a sweet tale of a new boy in school who has an amazing new way to approach tabletop football and an interesting elixir that helps him quickly close the gap between being an outsider and a kid with a new friend. The tabletop football description, full of well-written, kid-sized fantasy, is a delightful scene.
“People Have Been Drifting Away Lately” is an ethereal, lovely magical realism piece. It does what it says on the tin, employing beautiful language. It’s a story of detachment but it’s a calm, peaceful detachment.
Suddenly one of them sort of curls up. He is an older gentleman, all dressed up in an old suit. He seems to flatten out and his body sort of squares up. Right before me, he says, “Oh my,” as this happens. It starts slowly, as if all the air is being sucked out of him. And a bit of wind catches him and he sort of lifts off the ground and just hangs there in the air before us for a moment, then a gust of wind takes him higher like twenty feet in the air. And he slowly spins there in the sky, almost like a leaf or a kite. It’s like a dream, but like watching someone else’s dream from a distance.
Rauch, though much of this collection lacks traditional endings, concluded this story in the best way possible. This was my favorite of his stories.
I also, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, loved “The Bug.” A father and a son are doing battle against human-sized insects infesting their home. But even though the bugs are a menace, the father prevents his son from battering one with a baseball bat. Instead the father and the bug engage in some sort of scrum until the father wrests the morning paper from the insect and bests it in combat. They just want to go into the cool basement and the father cannot fault them for that but he is annoyed that they never learn their lesson as he pummels them in hand-to-hand combat.
My dad slowly walks down to it, bends to reach for some of its legs, swings it around and begins dragging its limp body down the walk to the trash out in the back alley. “I call this one Artie… Man, I tell ya,” he sighs, “They never learn.”
“You’ve seen this one before?” I gasp.
“Oh, sure. He knows the place pretty well,” Dad nods, “…He slept in your bed one night when you were staying over at your friend Terry’s place.”
“Yeah, they like to make themselves at home. You should’ve seen him there – snuggled up all warm and cozy like. Your mom actually took a picture of him. Said he looked cute.”
“The Procedure” is a sort of unlikely bizarro story in the beginning. It starts as a Gothic tale of a young child being rushed to the doctor in the night with a mysterious illness. A mother wakes her son to tell him his sister did not recover and their father would be bringing her home soon. The mother gasps, unable to explain the terrible accident and the boy does not understand. Then it takes a left turn, because when the father arrives with the sister, she is not a corpse waiting to be buried in the family plot. She just has a goat head. But more than just having a goat’s head, her essence of being human is gone. The little boy is made uneasy as he deals with this terrible change.
He feels betrayed by life, as if a promise had been made a long time ago that these things would never happen, and here something like this was now suddenly allowed, without preparation or warning, as if his sister were sacrificed so others might live out normal lives free from the reaches of such things.
In a way, that gothic tone continues even after we are aware of the goat head girl. Looming unease, the hint of future psychological unspooling, the loss of innocence, potential madness. This was a very effective story.
There are other stories, some very good, guaranteed to satisfy all kinds of bizarro tastes. A strange, stalkery man discovers his neighbor’s clone factory with some fairly disgusting descriptions along the way. A charming vignette of tiny, stampeding elephants. A man whose head grows to an enormous size, whose teenaged child is the only one with any sort of idea of how to react to the situation and is disregarded. A touching story about a strange plant given as a gift that rewards the recipient years later in an unexpected way. A good chunk of this book verges into the strip of literary land wherein bizarro and paranormal fiction overlap. If you think you can stomach the emdash/hyphen substitutions and other small editing issues, I recommend this book. The writing is at once creepy, romantic, strange, and sweet, and the stories are imaginative, amusing, and thoughtful. It’s a very good collection.