Written by Curtis Ackie
Pouting Bear, 2012
Curtis Ackie’s short story collection, Goldfish Tears, transports readers into surrealist landscapes painted with mostly stunning detail. While there are some nominal flubs that take the reader back to reality, most of the collection keeps the reader believing in Ackie’s world—a world where the sun forgets to rise one day, a husband builds a machine to “correct” his wife’s appearance, and a woman wakes to find that her stoop has dissolved into absolute nothingness. The premises of Ackie’s stories are wrought with potential. The climaxes aren’t always grand—which is a good choice that keeps the stories grounded, despite their bizarre beginnings. The endings are not always as succinctly approached as I’d prefer, but they are satisfying nonetheless. The book also contains a series of illustrations from Lorena Matić, complimenting the book’s tone with snapshots of individual scenes.
Most of the stories are written in present tense, hurtling the reader directly into the inciting incident. From a linguistic standpoint, you can tell that Ackie is fresh off a poetry collection as he writes these stories, inserting a number of poetic devices into his prose—alliteration pops up everywhere and some pieces have a distinct lyrical quality. His environments are clear and he finds precise ways to describe otherworldly occurrences. For example, in handling the surrealist elements in “The Colour of Nothingness,” Ackie writes these vivid lines:
“She runs her hand along the doorframe and then sticks the left one out. Gobbled up by the colourless nothing, the digital pentad ghosts out of sight, but the sensation in her wrist suggests the invisible appendage still exists. Unnerved, she pulls her hand back in and waggles her fingers about in front of her face to make sure all is in order; four and a thumb, normality.”
This simple scene helps depict that which is literally undepictable—Ackie describes the look of “nothing” through a character’s curiosity about the blank void on her porch. Her sensation is captured by the description of a phantom limb, but it isn’t overdone. And rather than bluntly describing her worry with some overused platitudes, Ackie shows the character’s somewhat vexed thoughts through her actions. The character counts her fingers to make sure they are all there, and this simple action clues the reader into her state of mind. Ackie does this all with active text and a keen awareness of how his character is behaving. He lets his characters make choices within their worlds rather than simply having the worlds exist around them.
However, there are a few moments when this breaks down. In some instances of character action, Ackie loses his bead on the character’s motives and they come off as detached character sketches. The characters are occasionally said to “see” the environment or “hear” a sound in a generic, explanatory way. This takes the reader back to a place of observance rather than engagement with the world. These simple phrases tend to damage the beautiful language highlighted in “The Colour of Nothingness.” In some settings, these descriptors are useful in conveying a character, but in Ackie’s surrealist realm, I think it pulls the reader too far out. In these instances, the reader is aware that this is just a story on a page—it shatters Ackie’s otherwise adept world-building. But that is a picky thing to gripe about, since a lot of the stories retain the active presence that Ackie’s tales demand. The immediacy of his present tense POV and the penchant for lyricism across the book keeps Ackie’s stories connected to the reader. Goldfish Tears is a solid collection of short stories from this poet and novelist.
Review by James R. Gapinski
© 2012, All Rights Reserved