The following quotation adorns the cover of this short story collection: ‘Wildly inventive. Delightfully strange. Cohen’s best most hilarious book yet. I absolutely loved it.’ I have no quarrel with ‘absolutely loved it’. Nor with ‘wildly inventive’ or ‘strange’, though whether ‘delightful’ is the most appropriate adjective is debatable. But I found absolutely nothing hilarious in these short stories. Instead, I found them moving, profound, serious, sad, frustrating, absurd and perceptive – but nothing in any of them caused me to laugh. So while a book’s cover may well influence whether or not you buy it, what really matters is the content. In this instance, that is eight excellent short stories.
There is little cheerful about any of the stories, but perhaps the saddest of them all is ‘Bugs’. It is about a man slowly describing his journey into insanity. He takes that trip in a leisurely manner with his childhood rabbit toy, Bugs, as both he and the toy progressively lose their faculties.
The titular story ‘The Terrible Event: A Memorial’ is a penetrating allegory about attempting to do the right thing by all and sundry and an ode to an oft-underrated quality – inefficiency.
A story that will resonate with many a frustrated office worker is ‘The Holes’, so named in honour of the perforations made by a two-hole punch – perforations made by the storyteller when he has nothing better to do. That narrator manages to convey an inefficient job environment, an enigmatic and largely absent boss and a boring colleague, while trying to unravel the mystery of an unseen fellow worker who operates only from home. Unlike most of the other stories, this one ends with a faint air of optimism.
One story almost made me laugh with its banana-skin-style humour – ‘Mattress’, which is about a coincidence with serious consequences.
Common to all the stories is a near-palpable sense of frustration, of inadequacies unaddressed. From ‘A History of Walking’:
But somehow he never got around to coming up with a code word. He thought of a few possibilities but none seemed quite right. Then he just sort of put the project on hold. Most of his life was already devoted to thinking up passwords – either that or trying to find his car.‘The Terrible Event’, David Cohen
Another interesting common factor is that most of the protagonists in these stories are so well-intentioned. By and large, the terrible things that happen are not of their own making.
So what makes these stories of powerlessness so powerful? For one, each story moves at a spanking pace. Cohen even manages to describe a boring situation in a non-boring way, as when he details a construction site on which no construction ever takes place. On it sits a ‘stationary yellow excavator with its mechanical arm slightly raised, the massive shovel tucked under like the head of a sleeping bird’. Somehow the reader looks forward to seeing the passive site again and again.
But the real power of these tales lies in the shrewd observations of ordinary people bumbling their well-intentioned yet misguided ways through life in an effort to improve things or to escape to something better. Cohen’s creation of situations that resonate so strongly with the reader represents the power and impact great short stories such as these can have.
The Terrible Event by David Cohen
Publisher: Transit Lounge
Published: 1 June 2023