Book: Lazy Eyes
Author: James Nulick
Type of Book: Fiction, literary fiction, experimental fiction, transgressive fiction, short story collection
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because it straddles very fine lines that separate literary fiction from experimental fiction from transgressive fiction from outright strangeness.
Availability: Published in 2022 by ExPat Press, you can get a copy here.
Disclaimers: You will find my name in the “thanks” section in this collection, and I have edited works for James in the past. I also like James and consider him a friend and the readers of this discussion may have to decide for themselves if I like James so much because his writing is amazing or if I am fondly disposed toward his work because he’s so likeable. Safest bet is that it is probably both but as usual I will make my case.
Comments: James Nulick is one of the most under-rated writers working. There are a handful of names I frequently say this about, including Ann Sterzinger and Hank Kirton, and it never fails to baffle me that each one of them isn’t far better known. Each book James writes should be the book that makes his name, so to speak, and this short story collection is no different.
I think one of the reasons that James has yet to achieve the renown he deserves is because it is very hard to pin down his style. Part autobiographic, part utter fiction, his work combines a direct, often visceral confessional tone that he mixes with magical realism. His unflinching look at the worst people can do is balanced with his keen insight into why bad people are unexpectedly good, and why good people so often fail morally. He marries that unyielding yet sympathetic gaze with otherworldly examinations of life and death that are so fantastic that they are akin to fairy tales or alternative takes on religion. His work is complex yet accessible, dark and hopeful, discrete and irreal, and in a literary world where people need writers and their works summed up in a couple of sentences, it can be hard for the genuinely innovative and interesting to reach the audience their talent is due.
Lazy Eyes seems to me to be a continuation of James’s 2021 novel, The Moon Down to Earth. Moon is a remarkable work in which James took the stories of three very unlikely people – an Hispanic super-morbidly obese, bed-bound woman, a white elderly widower, and a young mixed race aspiring musician – and showed the cosmic threads that wove them into a common human tapestry. The invisible strings that connect all the characters can be small things, like common cultural touchstones, to larger issues of coping with loss and abuse. James honors their individual natures while also showing an almost Jungian commonality that removes barriers of sex, gender, race, and age from the inner lives of extremely different people.
In Lazy Eyes, James picks up the central theme of unlikely connections and takes it a step further. No longer bound to the physical, human-dominated world, James created a universe wherein the line between animal and human experience is erased, one where death isn’t the end of personal growth and achievement, and one in which we create our own haunted lives. Cats dream of ascendance, the dead don’t die, and mannequins become sons in James’s strange but instinctively familiar world. Graphic and emotional, visceral and ethereal, relentless and sympathetic, the way James writes is so sui generis that it can only be called Nulickian.
It’s somewhat difficult to discuss these stories the way I prefer. I don’t want to spoil them, of course. There’s also a challenge that comes when one is presented with a series of stories that handle concepts of ceaseless transformation. It’s altogether more difficult when those stories need to be read together in order to understand James’ conceptual world-building. And then you need to bear in mind that I guarantee you there will be one or two elements from these stories that will haunt you or will intrigue you as you try to understand the numerology (and possibly angelology as I believe there are hierarchies among the spirits in these stories) that James salts throughout. I personally found myself ferreting out the meanings behind the numbers nine and fifty-seven, and want to talk about it in depth but am exercising rare restraint. I also never want to see a stick of beef jerky ever again. If you read this collection – and I think you should – please let me know the plot points, meaningful details or strange cosmic filaments that remained with you long after reading.
Since I am trying very hard not to spoil these stories, I am going to limit myself to the pieces that spoke to me the most. There isn’t a clunker among the ten stories in this collection, covering varied topics like alien (species) invasion, dark and fatal magic, or the difficulties of coming of age when one is different or anxious to be different. The stories that stuck with me the most were those that demonstrated the most world-building, verging almost into slipstream as James takes the mundane and makes it fantastic while never leaving behind the very specific, emotional literary effort that defines his style.
My favorite story in the collection is “Doe,” a heartbreaking look at how the dead never really go away, not even when they are nameless, not even when an argument can be made that they never really lived. Having no name and being literally dead on arrival, however, do not mean that the dead don’t stop growing after death. There is a balance in life and death, in body and soul, summed up in the best line in the story:
God is, if anything, symmetrical.
What is remarkable in this particular story is how grounded in reality it is – sadly it is very much a story that can be said to be ripped from the headlines over and over again – while also dabbling in ideas of what it means to be haunted, of why the dead may be both unwilling and unable to lie down. “Doe” makes no distinction between crushing guilt and spiritual revenge, and in fact I wonder if the point of this piece was to give a new insight into human conscience and what is behind our inability to shed the negative emotions we carry after we’ve done terrible things. We may create our own psychological prisons but we may not be the jailer who holds the key to freedom. This story also challenged my sense of what I supposed was my own moral stance regarding life and death, forcing me to consider the idea that simply not being does not mean not existing and wondering who, if anyone, has the right to make decisions regarding life and death when conscious existence may continue forever. This story reminded me a lot of Stewart O’Nan’s The Night Country, a book about dying young and how those left behind can be haunted in vastly different ways.
“The Black Doberman” would be hard for me to discuss even if I were not resolute regarding spoilers in this discussion. Because it disturbed me, I reread it a few times to try and define the uneasiness I felt. This is the story from which the title is derived, as the titular Doberman is named Lazy Eyes. This story is a gut punching combination of Bret Easton Ellis-style empty materialism, post-feminist yearning for traditional domestic titles, and a subtle sort of Freaky Friday role-switching as a character eliminates a rival in her romantic relationship only to take on the moral and social worth of her defeated foe. Best line in the story:
My entire life has been an unattended funeral.
The female character in this story is despicable while also being very pathetic, which then made her even more despicable because the god in my own symmetrical heart wants those who feel pain to be kind, strong, and brave. There is an intelligence that comes from personal misery that allows people to see how others feel the same way, yet this character refused to see the link between herself and that which she hated. There was a similar disconnect at play in “Doe” and it feels very much as if the unattended funeral is the end result of not seeing the tendrils of connection. Being deliberately cut off from the ebb and flow of life and how it affects conscious experience is itself a lonely death in the world James created.
“Dark Web” surprised me with how much more I took away from it after a second read. I suspect most of the stories in this collection will offer up more and more with additional reads. Anil and Ridhi are a couple working at home during the Covid shutdowns that closed many offices. Each stake their claim in the house – Anil becomes a chronic masturbator in the basement as he toggles back and forth between Pornhub and work, and Ridhi works in the kitchen in between her forays onto Reddit. James took a basic story, that of the couple who grows apart when forced to be very close, and subtly embroidered the theme of connection into it. When something genuinely strange happens that disrupts the tiresome routine that Anil is frantically trying to break free from in unseemly ways (like masturbating in public near other joggers while walking his dog), the loss of routine and real intimacy ensures that Anil finds himself just as haunted as those who suffered genuine deaths in this collection.
Beyond that, James draws attention to certain bestial elements of Anil’s viewpoint that closely mirror other, very different minds in this collection. Specifically, he imagines his wife’s ass and thighs, but refers to them, tellingly, as “hind quarters.” Anil is not diminishing his wife, nor is he a closet zoophile. Rather, James is showing the ways that the bestial and the humane can become intertwined because, in the magical world in Lazy Eyes, the animals think as humans do, and their thoughts, betrayals, and desires are very similar to those of humans. Anil is protective of his dog, lamenting planting trees that could poison her so he keeps her safe, creating a close connection with his dog. Not so much with his wife and when it may be too late, he merges the protective love he has for his dog with the protective love he wished he had had for his wife.
This, by the way, is an excellent example of what happens when you dig around in these stories a few times. I can’t think of a book with similar characterization and handling of plot wherein subtle phrases and descriptions reveal a yarn-like skein of connection. It’s genius.
“Strange Captive” broke my heart. It ended on a very hopeful note, but it’s still a rough story. The dark revelation of this story is that you read it in one of two ways, depending on that which horrifies you the most. This isn’t a wishy-washy piece, speaking of dark things without the courage to describe them accurately from the mind of the captive, but rather another example of the commonality between experiences that is the backbone of this collection. The hell of it is, even though the events in the story are specific and defined, I still ended the piece wondering what it was I had really read. The final paragraph and exacting details do not equivocate but my own personal horrors made it less clear.
“The Beautiful Sister” is a surprisingly unpleasant look at a teen girl who strikes out at her older sister in an absolutely calculating way. She’s seeking redress for years of what she considers abuse and dismissal and I was surprised at how much her anger shocked me. Was the revenge she sought so terrible if an adult and her boyfriend did not shrink away from helping her? This is a connection I may not understand, having been raised an only child. Perhaps the tension between siblings can result in such reactions. We have plenty of examples of it, with this story standing as a sort of witchy Cain and Abel update, but my experiences lack that specific tendril attachment. With that in mind, it might be interesting to read this book to see what you don’t connect with as much as what you do.
I won’t mention too much about “Spiders” because I genuinely cannot think of a way to discuss the story without completely spoiling it, but I want to mention that I read this story not long after reading articles about how it is that octopuses give human beings the best way to examine alien minds that we can find while confined to this planet. I had also recently seen the 2015 film Evolution, a minimalist horror story demonstrating the way humans could one day find themselves exploited for the benefit of a completely different, though somewhat visibly familiar species. Both media examples colored how I reacted to this story.
In fact, it was interesting how many of these stories, very unique in world-building and theory-creation, I read on the heels of or alongside media that traveled similar paths. The 2021 film Lamb comes to mind, as well as lower-rent movies on Shudder about angry teen girls who avail themselves of darker magic that seems a bridge too far considering the slights that caused them to lash out. I find coincidences like that meaningful though I seldom can pin down the meaning. Interesting nonetheless.
It’s a very rare short story collection when more than half of the stories are each worth the price of admission, as I like to put it. This collection is definitely worth reading and I highly recommend it.