God’s Autobio: Stories
Written by Rolli
N.O.N. Publishing, 2011
The collection opens strongly with the surreal “Von Claire and the Tiger,” satirising the self-importance of career academics. Rolli’s stories in God’s Autobio tend to display an arch humour, and this story’s first sentence is exemplary: “Having never been swallowed by a tiger before, Professor Von Claire wasn’t sure what to do about the situation.” When a character believes that reciting Blake while in the belly of a beast is an appropriate way to pass the time (and then stops in case the tiger “preferred Coleridge”), things can only go downhill for him. Pressed to justify being allowed to live, Von Claire fails repeatedly, and even when he finally succeeds by proposing to change his life, he is informed that while it is “A perfect solution,” given his advanced age, ‘It is, of course, by this point, far too late.’ The conclusion to the story is also pitch-perfect in its parting swipe at another profession: “‘For supper,’ said the tiger, ‘I think I’ll have…a poet.’”
Perhaps the most outstanding story in the collection is “Chimpanions.” Reminiscent of futuristic stories like Daniel H. Wilson’s recent novel, Robopocalypse, “Chimpanions” tracks the rise and fall of “a really great invention,” seen through the eyes of an old lady who gets a Chimpanion to keep up with her friends. “Chimpanions (chimps + companions) were electric robot friends—pets you might call them, though they were so much more than pets.” Except her Chimpanion just keeps killing people, seemingly in response to her commands. Or does it? A fatal “manufacturer’s error” by a company that makes Chimpanions and munitions means that perhaps she is not responsible for the murderous spree after all, although she has already tried to cover things up by feeding the corpses to the Chimpanion. The appropriate response by the end of the story is probably horror or disgust, but the whole story to this point has been delivered in such a matter-of-fact fashion that it is frankly hard not to crack a smile as well.
God’s Autobio closes with the interlinked sequence of Penny Fictions, in which the somewhat unhinged Mr. Penny (though he would deny it) undergoes various trials, including confinement in an institution. The sequence turns out to be a sensitive portrayal of a man who sees the world just slightly askew in comparison to other people, making Penny Fictions feel like a blend of its Impossible and Possible counterparts. So it seems eminently reasonable that upon dying, Mr. Penny should meet a tea-drinking woman whom he assumes is God, but who declares herself to be “just the old housekeeper.” There is an intriguing insinuation that he might be in some version of Hell (“How was the journey down?”), providing a nice inverse parallel to the collection’s titular story, in which the protagonist Bill is summoned to Heaven to ghostwrite the divine autobiography, since God spends most of that story drinking tea as well, much to Bill’s annoyance.
It is Rolli’s attention as a writer to such tiny, seemingly inconsequential details that encourages one to overlook the odd misstep in God’s Autobio, e.g. the unsavoury and mean-spirited narrator of “The Richest Fucking Old Lady in Town,” or the curious acquiescence of the narrator in “I Am a Butler,” which comes uncomfortably close to endorsing male rape. While the former story is clearly a shrill caricature and the latter does possess moments of oddball humour, they compare less favourably with the simple yet bizarre premise of a story like “The Man With the Ridiculously Huge Coupon” or the quiet pathos of “The Blue Room.” Ultimately though, the central achievement of God’s Autobio is actually Rolli’s ability to believably inhabit the voices of such a diverse cast of characters and deliver their stories to us.
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