When God Laughs by Jack London, 4/5
The short story has never been one of my favorite literary forms, so I was not exactly jazzed to crack open what I thought was a Jack London novel to find a collection of twelve shorter works under one title. They say a brief speech requires much more effort to create than a long one and I can only assume that even the best novelists face a similar challenge when it comes to crafting shorter works. My mild pessimism was wasted in this case, however, because most of these stories were captivating–full of vivid characters and a variety of dramatic plots and settings. It is a testament to the author’s skill that I could become so emotionally invested in stories ranging from just ten to forty-two pages long.
Why I read it: Just trying to read through the old books on my shelf!
While comparing my large book of Sherlock Holmes stories with my sister’s even larger book of Sherlock Holmes stories, I was recently disillusioned to discover that my edition was less comprehensive than I’d previously believed. So, when I saw the name of Conan Doyle emblazoned across the expansive spine of a ludicrously large book in Belle Books, Hay-on-Wye, I pounced eagerly. Strangely, the famous detective’s name was nowhere to be found inside.
A few months ago, if you were to ask me what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had written, I would have replied Sherlock Holmes (of course) and some novel I’d dimly heard about but never read, called The Forgotten Land or something (actually, I just checked and it’s The Lost World). I would have been completely ignorant of the 76 short stories contained in this 1200-page book, which is approximately the size and weight of a cinder block (and just as unwieldly). Thrilled with my discovery, I vowed to fit it into my suitcase for the long trip home, no matter how many articles of clothing had to be sacrificed to make room.
Generally, I am not a big fan of the short story format; I resent the energy it takes to completely reset my brain for each new plot which, by the time it has spooled up to anything of interest, has inevitably neared its conclusion. But, delightfully, these stories all seemed to waste little time at the beginning and generally lasted just long enough to keep my attention. I found them to be skillfully written and impressive in their variety, ranging in genre from horror to humour to history. Iconic characters such as the great detective are nowhere to be found, but there is plenty to amuse, while some twists and turns kept me guessing right until the denouement.
[Why I read it: I was looking for books to bring on a recent, cross country road trip and this was in my to-read pile. It is so large as to seem an impractical travel companion, but while contemplating its vastness, I cracked it open and read this glorious sentence:
All this disquisition upon superstition leads me up to the fact that Mr. Manson, our second mate, saw a ghost last night–or, at least, says he did, which of course is the same thing.
I brought the book along without further hesitation.]
When I found out that the movies Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck, Next, and The Adjustment Bureau were all based on the writings of one man, I was metaphorically gobsmacked. When I reached the final line of the first short story in this collection, Beyond Lies the Wub, I was literally gobsmacked. These twisty, dystopian sci-fi plots are like nothing else I’ve encountered in literature. Dick is a genre-definer with an unorthodox mind and I am definitely going to read more of his work.
N.B. Most of these stories are completely clean. The only ones I wouldn’t feel comfortable recommending to young people are “A Game of Unchance,” “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” “Faith of our Fathers,” and “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts.”
In this compilation, Bierce’s stories have been roughly categorized into horror, war and tall tales, though there is some overlap. I feel that the horror stories are decent, but inferior to the work of H.P. Lovecraft (admittedly the only other horror writer I know), being less imaginative and more cliched. I liked best “The Applicant” and “The Man and the Snake.” The war stories were more original and interesting, which is not surprising, since Bierce had first-hand experience fighting in the Civil War. My favorites were “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” “A Horseman in the Sky” and “Three and One are One.” It was in his tall tales that the bitter sarcasm for which Bierce is so famous really shone. Of these, “The Captain of the ‘Camel'” and “The Man Overboard” are perhaps the wittiest, jam-packed with the clever humor that is scattered, one sentence at a time, through the rest of the stories.