The Re­live Box

The Saturday Paper - - Books -

Thomas Cor­aghes­san Boyle is a re­spected Amer­i­can writer who, de­spite pen­ning 16 nov­els and 11 short-story col­lec­tions, has never man­aged to set the lit­er­ary world ablaze. His work is com­mend­able, read­able and oc­ca­sion­ally veers into the fan­tas­ti­cal, but is rarely mem­o­rable. His short fic­tion, 12 ex­am­ples of which ap­pear in this lat­est col­lec­tion, The Re­live Box, is fea­tured in the kind of stal­wart Amer­i­can mag­a­zines that still pub­lish short sto­ries, such as The New Yorker, Play­boy and Kenyon Re­view.

It is easy to see why. De­ter­minedly mid­dle­brow, the sto­ries of­ten in­volve naive, vanilla Amer­i­cans whose re­la­tion­ships are tested by try­ing cir­cum­stances and chang­ing times. Nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, dis­ease, crime and fraud all fea­ture here. Un­like a lot of short fic­tion, these are at least nar­ra­tive sto­ries with char­ac­ter and plot, rather than thin per­sonal anec­dotes. In that sense, they are sat­is­fy­ing, and when Boyle throws in a curve ball, his work is el­e­vated to a level bor­der­ing on ex­cel­lent.

High­lights in­clude “The Ar­gen­tine Ant”, which has a war­ring cou­ple with a new­born bat­tling an in­sect in­fes­ta­tion in their rented hol­i­day house. Or the ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered pets of “Are We Not Men?” – the flocks of foul-mouthed crow-par­rots that terrorise a neigh­bour­hood are a de­light. The ti­tle story is es­pe­cially rel­e­vant, with a sin­gle fa­ther and his daugh­ter be­com­ing lost in the tech­no­log­i­cal marvel of a con­sole that grants users the abil­ity to re­live mem­o­ries. Graphic re­runs of the fa­ther’s sex­ual en­coun­ters and the daugh­ter’s re­cap­tured mo­ments with her dead mother guar­an­tee that nei­ther wants to leave the house again.

Other sto­ries are less in­ter­est­ing.

“She’s the Bomb” sees a teenager ru­in­ing her ca­reer prospects by call­ing in a bomb threat to her high-school grad­u­a­tion party. “The De­signee” has a re­tiree caught up in one of those bank­ing scams where the promise of $30 mil­lion en­tices him to hand over his life sav­ings to overly po­lite Bri­tish Nige­ri­ans. Nei­ther of­fers much in the way of sur­prises.

In other words, The Re­live Box is this year’s en­try in the T.C. Boyle canon. There’s much to en­joy in these well-com­posed sto­ries, but read­ers will per­haps be un­likely to of­fer a glow­ing rec­om­men­da­tion to friends. For his fans, it of­fers a con­tin­u­a­tion of what Boyle has done so com­pe­tently for decades – pleas­ing short fic­tion with the oc­ca­sional tan­ta­lis­ing glimpse of some­thing greater. JD

Blooms­bury, 272pp, $32.99

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