Reviewed by William Demaree
222 pp. Lethe Press
The greatest compliment I can pay “The Marks of Aegis,” the first in Justin K. Jarboe’s collection of sixteen short stories, is that it immediately reminded me of one of my favorites, “A Fable with Slips of White Paper Spilling from the Pockets” by Kevin Brockmeier. Both stories examine, among other things, the grief and beauty of allowing the pain of others into our lives. The difference between the authors is very clear, though. Brockmeier’s conceit is that a man acquires “God’s overcoat,” whose pockets begin to overflow with slips of paper, like divine fortune cookie messages, each one containing someone’s poignant, even painful prayer. In time, it becomes an unbearable burden.
Instead of tiny white slips emerging from the pockets of a comfy overcoat, Jarboe’s imagery in “The Marks of Aegis,” is much more visceral, drawn in fact from self-mutilation: the narrator reports swallowing, inserting, and injecting “some friend’s wretched situation and the accessories of their wretchedness” until a “junkyard” has formed under the narrator’s skin. In time, the narrator tells us that “the work was done” and began the process of removal: “I got out my box cutter and I started making ways out. I sliced along the planes of my skin and squeezed until everything of the inside that ought not to have been there was on the outside again.” To repair the wounds, the narrator begins with a first aid kit, then uses a sewing kit, and then ends the process with a soldering iron.
“The Marks of Aegis” is in many ways typical of the stories in this collection. It is short (this one is barely two pages). The narrative is slight, abstract, or even perplexing, but the imagery carries a lot of emotional weight—readers will feel these stories before they understand them, if ever. These are not the typical “well-made” short stories; teachers would have a bitch of a time using them to illustrate that old “exposition-rising action-climax-denouement” paradigm. Often, Jarboe’s stories are not formal narratives but dystopian snapshots or the seemingly random musings of androids or humans well on their way to becoming cyborgs. The pieces often feel like dark lyrical prose poems set in some future too close for comfort to our present.
Some of Jarboe’s stories are more traditional, in a way, and still have those wonderful, visceral images. For instance, another of my favorites in the collection, “We Did Not Know We Were Giants,” reads like a creation myth, a first-person account of an ancient people’s relationship with their gods. In the collection’s notes, Jarboe reports that the story has echoes of The Book of Job, and indeed the story is aswirl with the language of numinosity, especially in the scene in which the young narrator confronts the God of Storms:
He was a great stag, so pale as the fog that white clouds gathered like a holy veil over the mountain. His hooves rolled heavy with thunder that boomed and crashed like an avalanche, thunder that coiled in the stomach before it echoed in the ears. Wheels of wind and quenches of rain poured along his path. . . .I cried out, and it was all that I could do to make that place sacred.
But Jarboe doesn’t often linger in the mythic past. Most of the stories have sci-fi, cyberfiction edges. Fans of Blade Runner will feel at home here. But these stories are not space operas. Jarboe uses the elements of cybertronic sci-fi to explore themes that we all face in the present, especially those of us who are outsiders of some variety. “My Noise Will Keep the Record,” for instance, is a brief rumination of a narrator who is becoming “increasingly cybertronic” and lives in a phallic high rise that he describes as “Godzilla’s vibrator.” He works for a company that sells “personal assistance devices” that the company uses to gather information about their owners, information being used for some unknown purpose. But the narrator’s only concerns are that he is about to lose his job and that his landlady is retiring and selling the house to new owners, likely to evict him. Facing unemployment and homelessness, the narrator responds in truly human fashion, with nostalgia. Just as he experiences a “phantom sensation” for the organs he has apparently sold and replaced with cyber-organs, he will experience the same sensation for the loss of a way of life: “You can have that phantom sensation for a whole neighborhood. A cityzen is one who keeps the memory of a specific place long after it’s been demolished for high rises. My noise will keep the record, with nowhere else to go.” The story’s setting may be futuristic, but the plight of the outsider being pushed out even further is familiar to a large number of us, I suspect. Jarboe’s sci-fi stories are of the dystopian variety, future worlds that we look at with dread. But the stories capture the feelings many of us experience in the here and now as we feel more and more out of place in a sterile, mechanized world full of big box stores and in a culture with less room for the idiosyncratic.
This is not to imply that everything in this collection is a downer. Jarboe has a playful side that pops up most in a riff on Kafka called “I Am a Beautiful Bug, “ a funny smartass grad-student take on Kafka that somehow morphs into a manifesto for the outsiders in our culture. Incredibly clever, this story has a great scene in which the narrator—the beautiful bug—tries to get a drivers license and is lectured by an overeducated DMV clerk on the meaning of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. “I am not a metaphor,” cries the insect-narrator; “I need my drivers license.” Kafka being evoked in a DMV facility is, in retrospect, so obvious, but the scene is easily the funniest in the collection.
Jarboe’s intense and quirky imagery and non-traditional story-telling works well in these brief pieces. In longer pieces, the style seems less fortuitous. In fact, the collection’s centerpiece, “Everyone on the Moon Is Essential Personnel,” clocks in at 82 pages and is, for me, not as successful as the others.
The premise is intriguing. A young slacker, Sebastian, contemplates abandoning his unsatisfying life to take a job as “essential personnel” on a moon base operated by some unnamed corporation. (Jarboe is crafty with names as well as with the imagery. Will this Sebastian, like Shakespeare’s, find romance and adventure as a stranger in a strange land, or will he become a martyr, like St. Sebastian, should the moonship, as the character fears, malfunction during the trip killing all on board? Or maybe Jarboe just likes the name Sebastian.)
Though lacking in purpose and direction, Sebastian is engaging; we feel for him, we know him. In one of the more painful scenes in the collection, the clearly closeted queer Sebastian says goodbye to his friend Yonatan in one of those painful “now or never” moments. Finally acknowledging the deep feelings he has kept hidden from his friend, Sebastian goes for broke:
He leans forward and kisses the crown of Yonatan’s head, waits for the world to crash to an end because of it, and when it doesn’t, he moves to Yonatan’s lips.
But here he is less well received. Yonatan and his apoco-lips turn gently aside, and Yonatan lets the kiss land on his soft cheek instead. . . .
“Sorry,” Sebastian says. “I just. Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Yonatan says. “I know you like me. Like, have a crush on me. Yeah?”
Sebastian’s voice cracks up and snaps out the word, “Yeah,” with all the music of a belch through a kazoo.
Despite the crazy jokes here—“apoco-lips,” “a belch through a kazoo”—this scene is melancholy, painful in its all-too familiar echoes of all those times we have puts ourselves out there, only to be, however gently, rejected.
There are many individual set-pieces in this story that are tender, heartbreaking, or just downright funny in their observations. In one, Jarboe mocks those stock-photo faces that appear in ads plastered all over the place: “All of them have chalk-white teeth, chiseled jaw-lines, skin that has never known a blemish or a drop of sweat that didn’t make them glow, radiant.” In another, Jarboe ridicules typical coffee-house denizens, including “awkward graduate students of all stripes, conspicuously looking for a narrative in the observations.” I have seen that guy. Hell–I have been that guy.
In this story, though, Jarboe takes some risks in narrative structure that I found distracting. The story takes two or three sharp twists in the point of view and the readers are sometimes thrown off the path that we thought we were on. We want this to be Sebastian’s story—whatever the outcome—because we like this guy, despite his failings. But for a long stretch, Sebastian becomes, at best, a secondary character in his own story. This is a story in which the parts are more than the whole.
Nonetheless, there is much to admire in Jarboe’s stories—much to contemplate, much to laugh at, and much to weep over. The stories are permeated with the sweet voice of the outside—queer, trans, the sensitive trapped in a crass world. At their best, these quirky stories are, to paraphrase one of Jarboe’s characters, bright as lightning, rich as thunder, sweet as rain.
William Demaree lives in the suburbs but spends as much time as possible in the bookstores of Chicago. He has worked at Elgin Community College for a very long time, where he teaches writing, wicked wisdom, and an occasional literature course.