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[BOOK REVIEW] Six Silly Stories by Geoffrey Maloney

Note: A few years ago I wrote a series of reviews for The Fix Short Fiction Review. Unfortunately, I recently learned from Jason Sanford that The Fix can no longer be found online so I’m reprinting the reviews here.

The “silly” in the title of Australian author Geoffrey Maloney’s collection Six Silly Stories refers not to the childlike humor we normally associate with the term, but instead is synonymous with “odd”, “strange”, or even “weird”. The stories in this collection, subtitled “The City Sextet”, take the hum-drum tasks of everyday life, from doctor’s visits, to bus rides, to working in a cubicle, and try to make them exciting and new.

I say try, because while Maloney’s stories are interesting in a simplistic fairy-tale sort of way, they lack the necessary spark to make them great, to truly add anything worth reading to the genre. The characters are dull, lifeless things – cardboard cutouts that Maloney attempts to distract from by adding fantastic elements. These short, almost flash fiction length tales have enormous digressions that have little to do with the narrative, other than as filler. More than once, Maloney begins his tale as if it were an essay, laying out the theme and/or argument he plans to make in the first few paragraphs and then going on to make it. Such story construction means the reader already has a good idea where the story is going to end up, so it removes the reader’s very reason for continuing. Intended to be humorous, the stories either end abruptly or morbidly, removing any smile the reader may have gained as he or she read it. In truth, there is little to like about this collection, other than the nice illustrations by Diana Maloney and “Tale of the Little Hair Mermaid” – but only in comparison to the rest of the collection.

The first tale, “Fearless Flying Apartment People” is more a sad story than humorous, or even silly. The narrator works in a cubicle in a tower. For fun, the cubicle bound office workers peer out of their office windows at the nude, sunbathing women in nearby apartments, usually with little success. But when a new apartment development next door is populated with single, down-on-their-luck women, the office workers begin to wonder who will suicide first.

The unfortunate part of this story is that although it is an interesting idea, the reader will already know what will happen within the first few paragraphs. “So I didn’t think that ‘fearless’ sounded like it had anything to do with ‘fear’… I imagined it had something to do with flying.” With that sort of set up, how could the reader not know how the story will play out? I’m sure you know.

Maloney has written what amounts to an urban fairytale about the phoenix rising from the ashes of its defeat. There is also a slight bit of commentary on the callousness of the office workers, who watch the unfortunates but do nothing to help.

The story ends tragically, not hopefully or with humor. It has the exact opposite effect of what Maloney intended. Rather than giving the reader a sense of rebirth, or new life, the reader will simply end up sad. It doesn’t fit into a collection with the title Six Silly Stories.

“The Ant Catcher” is about the narrator’s attempt to find work in a job he is not truly suited for. Rejected during his first interview for the role of ant catcher, the narrator vows to try again. “The Ant Catcher” had potential in its beginning, (although once again Maloney tells us the story he plans to tell, rather than letting the narrative speak for itself) but ends up being mostly a recitation of facts about some of the various ant types that can be found in subtropical climate. Such discussion is better suited to a Discovery Channel documentary, not a short narrative.

The story lacks the tension that a story centered on a job interview should generate. The narrator is almost lackadaisical in demeanor about the job he applies for, so it is hard for the reader to care whether he gets the job or not. The only thing that makes this story even a fantasy is the personification of an ant the narrator encounters. And that is at the end of the story, after the factual introduction to three types of ants. In a word, this story is dull.

The sacrilegious and completely and utterly strange story of “Miracle at 30,000 Feet” left me scratching my head. Ostensibly, the story is about an ordinary plane ride. But when the plane catches fire, the narrator is the only one who can save it, as everyone else seems to have disappeared. With the help of a naked nun and a drunken priest from the first class cabin, the narrator must save the plane from the fire and an infestation of killer ants, a la Snakes on a Plane. Throw in a mariachi band, a saint who can’t do miracles, and an armadillo, and you get a truly strange story.

Reading like a bad dream sequence, this story moves from strange, to weird, to utterly ridiculous. It’s a nonsense story, something a child of eight might tell a grown-up. To the child, there is some point to the story, some theme or idea being expressed, but the parent just ends up scratching their head. So too the reader of this story. I imagine Maloney must have smirked himself – taking pleasure in our confusion – as he added more and more strange elements to the story. It is truly silly. As absurdist fiction, this story may have some small merit, but in reality, it is almost too random, almost like it were written by Salvador Dali.

Returning to the realm of the cubicle, “The Woman Whose Perfume Smelled to Much” is a ghost story. A young person works late one night, but ends up saving his boss from a strange mist smelling strongly of women’s perfume. The boss then tells him the story of a love he rejected, with tragic consequences.

This story ends abruptly. There is no build-up of tension, just a morbid curiosity on the part of the narrator. A very tropish evil mania sort of sound bite brings the story to a close, jolting the reader out of any emotional connection with it. The story has no mystery, nor does it engender the spine-chilling effect its author had in mind. It wants to be the kind of story told around a Boy Scout campfire, but ends up being only campy instead. As a ghost story, it lacks any of the elements that make those types of stories worth reading.

“Tale of the Little Hair Mermaid” is the bus ride story previously mentioned. Its protagonist and narrator idles away his time riding to and from work on a bus by contemplating the backs of people’s heads. A strange pastime, but one I think many people can identify with. One day, during one of the narrator’s contemplations, a curly-haired gentlemen’s head talks back.

The story is about how “love is found in the most unlikely of situations”, even inside people’s hair. Based on its conclusion, it is also about how love, formerly unobtainable, now obtained, can become a dry and rigid thing. It stands in direct opposition to Grimm brother’s tale of “The Little Mermaid” where true love is found and the protagonists live happily ever after.

This story, though still odd and silly, is perhaps the best of the collection. Its theme and elements are clear, and it manages to fulfill the collection’s goal of turning the mundane into something extraordinary.

The concluding story of the collection, “The Doctor and the Little Red Imp” could really have done without the imp. It is a superfluous character. The story revolves around a middle-aged man’s visit to the doctor. As any middle-aged man reading this review knows, there is one very unpleasant portion of the exam that makes any routine check-ups a rather unpleasant prospect. Not so for the protagonist of this tale, but instead of the traditional unpleasantness, he gets quite another shock instead.

Theoretically, the reader is supposed to think the imp was the reason for the strange effect of the prostate exam. But as the story unfolds, it is not clear that the imp has anything at all to do with what was going on. In fact, by story’s end, I had forgotten all about the character of the imp entirely, having focused all my reading energy on the more interesting characters of the patient and the doctor. It is not a good thing when a titular character in a story is so wholly forgettable.

Maloney’s collection wants to be an urban fantasy alternative to Andrew Lang’s fairy books, or a successor to Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things, but comes nowhere near to their vision or quality. It is, frankly, imitation fiction, and better written and more interesting stories can be found elsewhere. None of the stories narrators ever seems to wonder at the implausibility of neither the fantastic things that are happening, nor they do they ever seem to approach the events with anything other than stolid pragmatism, as if the events that are occurring happen everyday.

Maloney also seems to always go one paragraph to far. Without giving away the endings, each of these stories, had they ended just one paragraph before they did, might have ended happily, or at least in a silly but fun fashion. Instead, Maloney takes that extra step, and the story goes from being only odd, to being rather sad.

This whole collection is pretty forgettable. When Maloney isn’t creating factual filler, he is giving away the ending at the beginning of the story. Are these stories ridiculous? Are they silly? Yes, they are, but they are not at all well-constructed. They are essays with dialogue. Geoffrey Maloney tries to turn the mundane elements of life into extraordinary events, but manages only to provide unfinished, incomplete stories about dull characters.

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