Book Review: Tell God I Don’t Exist
First book from City Paper fiction contest finalist populated by outcasts at odds with slightly more powerful outcasts
Published: August 7, 2013
Tell God I Don’t Exist
You peel a banana, and instead it’s an apple, a kiwi, a boner. If it’s some old lady with a boner coming out of a banana peel, it’s hilarious; if it’s your poor nana, well, how dare you? It’s the soul-crushing delight of expectation, whose defiance can be both stimulating (see boner) or confusing (see kiwi). Or perhaps something like familiarity is at stake. It’s OK for Superman and Michael Shannon to destroy a square mile of Metropolis and all the humans therein, so long as Doug Stamper, Morpheus, and that guy from that CSI show all survive or die with purpose. The things we expect are there within their peel, and the people we know to pay attention to are not treated like extras.
These are thoughts that emerge as a result of Timmy Reed’s (novel, collection, book of prose poems?) Tell God I Don’t Exist. The title itself says a lot about the book, undoing its own purpose. If you tell God I don’t exist, He will probably know I do, my own imperative serving as proof of my existence. If you come to this book with expectations of what a short story should be, prepare to have them pleasantly, if fleetingly, defied. If you go in with no expectations, then congratulations, you may be one of the few people who don’t need art like this.
Some of the pieces, such as “Water into Dust” or the five-line “Reward,” seem like little more than stages upon which to push out a strange and lonely idea.
“The quest started with signage: Reward, Missing Tortoise. The torn page was attached to a lightpost with a strip of clear tape filled with bubbles that brought oceans to mind, a blanket of surf. I had to find this lost creature, a prehistoric remnant at large in the human city, just like me.” That’s the entirety of “Reward,” but there is something about Reed’s prose that sticks in the reader’s craw. In this case, it is the phrase “just like me.” At first it seems limited to “at large in the human city,” but then you start to wonder if the narrator is also a prehistoric remnant.
For such a short book, Tell God is full of such bizarre rumblings, all of which seem disconnected and disconsolate at first. But about halfway through the book, all of the odd stuff has bumped around enough to start to feel familiar. We have entered the writer’s world, as seen through the eyes of children, homeless people, and don’t-belongs. Reed’s world is populated by outcasts at odds with other, slightly more powerful outcasts. Ancient pasts are of import to a distant future.
Though one is tempted to compare Tell God to the parable-like Ficciones of Jorge Luis Borges, they are full of such mundane contemporary details that Lydia Davis and her wry, meditative, and utterly inventive stories are more apt. In the midst of his speculative world, Reed is capable of a gut punch as well. “Occasionally I will be writing about you on my porch in the sun and I won’t know what else there is to say, so I will look up at the sky. And I will see a bird. Actually, I will see the belly of a bird, flying over-head. In a second the bird will be gone and I will have to start thinking about you again.”
The book is full of such meditative descriptions that are only possible after one has slowed down, taken deep breaths, and become aware of each and every passing moment, making the prose itself feel more immediate, as if each sentence is being thought just now, as you read it. It’s fun to read these bits, sometimes full of astonishing facts that make one’s face fall blank for a minute or so. “In the early days of Modern English, British moles were known as ‘mouldwrap[’] ‘mould’ meaning ‘soil’ and ‘warp’ meaning ‘throw.’ Male moles are called ‘boars’ and female moles are called ‘sows.’ A group of moles is called a ‘labor.’” And . . . flesh hangs from skull front.
Reed, who won third place in City Paper’s 2011 fiction contest, has an affinity for little critters, from the surprisingly poetic mole through the birds and the bees, all the way to the shockingly prosaic mermaid that the members of a boat tour of a bay full of bioluminescence find (Reed calls his press UnderratedAnimalsPress). If there is such a tour, I want to go. But this story sparkles not just with the dazzling setting or the uncanny mermaid, but with the moral dimensions of the strange problem-solving process hit upon by the passengers. “Maybe she has old age, a little boy squeaked,” revealing everything about the way the aging process appears to the young.
While the effects of Reed’s unsettling universe may not be sustainable for, say, 400 pages, it is satisfying for the breezy 80 pages he gives us. It is a quick trot through a few hallways of a world teetering along the border between the charming and darkly surreal. “You should be the kind of fellow that makes people feel the world is all right after all, even if they have to find out later that it is not,” Reed writes in “Starfish.” Which is something the pieces accomplish, on their own and taken together, presenting a naive worldview that is saddened by the state of things but too small to be harmed by the injustice.
“These are the dull humid days that cause fungal infections and people to fall off their roofs.”
Are these instructions, suggestions, or merely possibilities?
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