On a whim I picked up this small, beautiful book from Gaspereau Press at the library. Besides the obvious care that went into making the book, and the idea that this is a book about books unwritten was very appealing to me. I expected something like A Perfect Vacuum by Stanislaw Lem, which is a book of reviews of books that were never written (I need to reread this), but instead, Wharton’s approach to “imaginary” books explicitly includes imaginary worlds as well.
Malevolent books figure heavily in the collection. From three different stories:
“The novel swallows all that down without thanks and demands more.”
“It jumps and thumps on your bedside table after you’ve turned out the lights…” “Doggedly you read on, but eventually this novel that is not a novel loses you in turn…”
Unfortunately these stories all blur in to one featureless glob of nothing special and the few that contain more than cute turns of phrase get lost in the shuffle.
Stories of readers and societies driven mad by their literary activities are also favorite topics, as are the occasional description of the literary lives of fictional cultures, which I really enjoyed. Wharton is at his best when he allows characters to dominate: the stars of Atlantean literary history, the European monk being seduced in Mexico and the Canadian family poisoned with unfulfilled hopes. The last are the most human in the collection, and when I discovered that they were going to be a reoccurring subject I kept hoping that the next story I read would be about them. In these stories his writing is lush and beautiful, and his masterful setting and characterization appear effortless.
I don’t expect flash fiction to deliver any of the digressive delights that novels can. I do expect the form to take an idea, use powerful language to lodge it in my brain and leave me wanting to fill in the blanks. Instead I got a little bored. The bloodless, repetitive stories with book-as-_____ seem to be there to create a world for the titular mythical beast to saunter through, but instead leave big, blank spaces on the map.