The Pure Product, John Kessel

Tor, 1997, 381 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86117-6

I have always been fond of saying that if you want to discover an author, you’d be better off with a collection of his (her) short stories than a novel. Not only are the stories shorter (-duh-) but you also get a wider sample of the author’s interests and themes in a collection. Additionally, the idea level and the quality of writing is almost always higher, word-for-word, in short stories rather than full-length novels.

At least, when the author’s reasonably good.

Take, for instance, John Kessel. I’ve read his previous novel, Good News From Outer Space. It seemed to me a collage of half-finished vignettes, strung together by a threadbare plot of happy-happy alien invasion. I was not impressed.

This is not the case with The Pure Product, a pretty engaging collection of short stories from Kessel’s pen. Most of them are good, and a few of them truly attain excellence.

Generally speaking, Kessel knows how to write a story. He creates sharply-drawn characters, and his eye for detail will quickly draw you in the story. When he’s not playing around with original ideas, he can make the old ones seem fresh, or at least interesting enough that we won’t even think of stopping to read.

Kessel’s fiction should be accessible for almost every readership. He doesn’t write Hard-SF (but has a certain knowledge of it) and, at a few exceptions, doesn’t rely on the existing SF bag of tricks. (One exception is his alternate-history about Herman Melville, space-opera writer) Furthermore, most of his stories are crisply told, with the cool and assured prose of a true pro. No excessive Ellisonian-type loghareea here.

Some stories miss, some succeed. Among the better ones:

  • in “Not Responsible! Park and Lock!” Kessel recreates a society completely shaped by the presence of an infinite road. Money has been replaced by miles driven, good old fifties-style cars equal houses, robots tend to the basic jobs, and children go on schoolbuses to learn… It’s absurd, senseless and yet we can’t wait to know more. Unfortunately, the story tantalizes more than it reveals. It’s still the best concept of the book.
  • Kessel doesn’t write Hard-SF, but his “The Einstein Express” brought back very, very fond memories of a Time-Life Science book about relativity which used the basic concept of the story. That it’s a romantic comedy with a happy ending is a double-plus.
  • Showing that human pains mixed with SF can produce some of the best literature, “Hearts Do Not in Eyes Shine” explores something that seems obvious once the concept is there: What if you and your mate could selectively erase the bad memories of your relationship? What if that was an alternative to divorce? Would it solve anything? What if your memory gets erased, but you suspect that your mate’s memories remain intact…?
  • “Faustfeathers” is a deliciously anachronic play about (who else?) Faust. Enough said; it’s a blast.
  • In “The Franchise”, a very young George Bush faces off Fidel Castro in one of the most exciting World Series ever!

…and so on. “Man”, “Invaders”, “Animals”, “A Clean Escape”, “Some Like it Cold”… More than fifteen stories, and at least ten of them are good, even very good. It’s ironic, it’s well-written, it’s humane, it’s smart, it’s comic, it’s tragic, it’s accomplished.

It’s John Kessel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *