Undiscovered Territories, Robert Freeman Wexler (PS Publishing 978-1-786365-89-7, ￡25.00, 326pp, tp) October 2021.
Although Undiscovered Territories is not Robert Freeman Wexler’s first collection – that would be 2008’s Psychological Methods to Sell Should Be Destroyed – it is his most complete, featuring most of the short fiction he’s published over the last two decades in magazines like Electric Velocipede, Polyphony, and The Journal of Experimental Fiction. The fourteen stories in the collection are spread across three sections – In the Undiscovered City / In the Undiscovered Territory / In the Undiscovered Small Town – each establishing a geographic location for what’s to be a surrealist journey into the unknown.
We begin in the city, with the first five stories primarily set in and around Manhattan. The opening piece, “Tales of the Golden Legend”, is a whimsical affair about those rare individuals who can converse with bread. The story’s highlight is when the narrative switches to a newly baked loaf just out of the oven: “I was born at 350 degrees in a small, white, gas oven. I first became aware inside this metal box while the yeast died, screaming silently within me.” The story is an example of the type of comical absurdist fiction that I love. It is not, however, emblematic of Wexler’s work. For example, “The Baker”, a piece that’s original to the collection and complements “Tales of the Golden Legend”, is anything but playful or quirky. Instead, it’s this tightly focussed character piece about an ex-professional footballer whose love of yeast and dough (“Bread is dream, the stuff of wonder and delight”) inspires him to start his own bakery. But as the day grows closer to the grand opening, the baker’s insecurity kicks in, leading to a series of bread-related nightmares.
The middle section of the collection takes us to worlds disconnected from our own. “Travels along an unfurling circular path” sees our protagonist, seeking to escape a vast system of caves, trek from one strange location to another. Of all the stories in the collection, this is the one that resonated with me the least. The aimless nature of the narrative – influenced, according to Wexler, by the text-based PC games of the ‘80s – meant there’s little to grab hold of or care about. It’s followed, however, by the brilliant “Sidewalk factory: a municipal romance”, a delicious example of absurdist satire where a municipal worker in an unnamed city struggles to carry out the proclamations, first nonsensical (“the new sidewalks of our city are to be modelled from discarded felt hats”) and then insidious, made by the Lord Mayor. I also really enjoyed “The Mountain”, which takes place in the same city as “Sidewalk Factory” and tells the story of a mountain that has sprung up, fully formed, in the lands beyond the Unreasoning Forest, and the doomed expedition that’s sent out to confirm its existence.
Three of the four stories that make up the third section of Undiscovered Territories take place in the town of Springdale. In the first of these, the novella “In Springdale Town”, the story switches between an actor, Richard Shelling, and a lawyer, Patrick Travis, who have just arrived at the titular location. In the case of Shelling, he’s looking to get away from it all (a trait common to Wexler’s male protagonists), and Springdale – which coincidentally shares the name of the fictional locale of the TV show Blake’s River where he made several guest appearances – fits the bill. For Travis, he’s returning to the town after a long hiatus, having left Springdale after divorcing his wife, Caroline. It’s not immediately apparent what connects the two men until you learn that the role Shelling played on “Blake’s River” was that of lawyer Patrick Travis. “In Springdale Town” is a remarkable novella that questions (footnotes included) our notions of consensus reality. It’s no surprise that Jonathan Strahan chose the story for his anthology Best Short Novels: 2004. The other two tales set in Springdale, “New Neighbors” and “Springdale longitude and latitude”, are also strong stories which, like the novella, frame Springdale as a contemporary Brigadoon, which can only be accessed by the select few and where reality is fluid and elastic.
Undiscovered Territories isn’t just an excellent collection of stories; it’s also an effective showcase of the broad church that is absurdist fiction, where stories can range from the funny and light, to the strange and discomfiting, to the opaque and perplexing.
Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This review and more like it in the December 2021 issue of Locus.
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