As some of you know, there are three major things happening right now, for me: I’m hosting my annual Art & Words Show on September 21st; I’m going to be a program participant at FenCon in Dallas the weekend of October 5th; and I’m getting married on October 12th. Those three producers of stress plus the regular day job and the writing makes for a busy schedule. Therefore, I bring you a guest post by my friend, fellow writer Matt Switliski.
Matt Switliski is a writer, editor, and teacher currently pursuing a PhD in English. His work, which spans several genres, has appeared in print, online, and on stage. Devoted to the short story, he nevertheless hopes to one day have a story big enough for a novel. He keeps a blog on writing, books, and other topics (occasionally) at iamrazorwing.livejournal.com.
I did the math, which is a big deal for me. Since I started keeping track of my reading a few years ago, I’ve read, on average, one hundred and eighty stories every year. I’m not sure how that compares with the totals of others, but to me that seems like a lot. When Bonnie asked for guest posters, I brainstormed a list of stories that, for various reasons, have stuck with me. I wrote down authors and titles without any forethought or long musing, just knee-jerk reminisces. Two dozen stories, that list. I’m sure I could have remembered others, but this bunch stood out to me, among hundreds.
Arbitrarily, I picked one: Joe Hill’s “Pop Art.” In his introduction to 20th Century Ghosts, Hill’s first collection, Stoker-winning author Christopher Golden calls “Pop Art” “transcendent”—“[t]he single best short story I have read in years.” I don’t know if I can parse out the hierarchy of the great stories I’ve read—lately or period—but I do agree with Golden that “Pop Art” is something special.
I think part of the story’s success lies in its originality. It begins, “My best friend when I was twelve was inflatable.” Fantastic literature, for all its capacity to push the boundaries of the real and the possible, has a definite tendency to rely on iconic images and tropes. As someone with a deep affinity for folklore and fairy tales, I don’t consider that a bad thing. Still, it’s refreshing to come across something new like the inflatable Arthur Roth, a twelve-year-old afflicted by “one of these genetic things that plays hopscotch with the generations, like Tay-Sachs.”
If you think about the impossibility of the premise—particularly as Hill reveals that Art has no heart or lungs, can’t blink, can’t speak—the illusion quickly shatters. But Hill commits to the strangeness so earnestly that I find it hard to not be swept along.
That earnestness owes much to the unnamed narrator. Rather than put Art, for whom being inflatable is routine, at the center of the story, Hill gives us the narrator’s perspective on Art. Perhaps surprisingly, the narrator doesn’t find Art weird or alien. He accepts Art, possibly because Art accepts him.
The narrator is not a Nick Carraway analogue, a kind of unobtrusive camera through which we can view the action and the story’s real star. He has a presence, narrative weight. His home life consists of a father on disability who watches TV and suffers migraines and a berserker pit bull named Happy. At school he cultivates a “reputation as a delinquent and possible drug pusher.” At first I had a hard time understanding why he builds such a façade when he admits to being so lonely, but I think it’s a response to his domestic troubles—he has no models for healthy relationships and the kids at school who figure most prominently in the story are bullying jerks. Only when he defends Art from those actual delinquents does he find someone who will listen, someone who proves to be a decent human being. Interesting, when you consider that Art is a human being in a rather loose sense.
Like his father Stephen King, Joe Hill can manage quiet character pieces in addition to visceral horror, and the range in 20th Century Ghosts attests to that. “Pop Art” strikes me as one of the best here because I rarely see in fantastika small stories that center on the friendship between two boys. Although there is a strong bond between Art and the narrator, it isn’t without minor antagonisms that make the emotional notes ring truer. “In a friendship, especially in a friendship between two young boys, you are allowed to inflict a certain amount of pain. This is even expected. But you must cause no serious injury; you must never, under any circumstances, leave wounds that will result in permanent scars.”
The story likely has particular resonance for me because neither of these boys fit in. Besides Art’s “condition,” his communications are routinely misinterpreted, adding cause in the eyes of Billy Spears and company “to kick his ass.” He’s fascinated by outer space and death, two ideas he marries beautifully in my favorite passage: “You get an astronaut’s life whether you want it or not. Leave it all behind for a world you know nothing about. That’s just the deal.”
As for the narrator, his displacement seems like an unlucky turn of events, one he embraces by carrying a switchblade to school and reading alone on the monkey bars at recess. His mother suffered a mental breakdown, leaving for Florida and sending letters “about sunspots and gamma rays and the radiation that emanates from power lines, about how the birthmark on the back of her left hand had moved up her arm and onto her shoulder.” His father dismisses any attempts at communication—“You’re killing me here with blah blah this, blah blah that.” The kids at school, jerks. Even when he meets Art’s mom and feels love toward her, he swerves around the vulnerability by calling her a moron for her belief in life’s spiritual oneness. He doesn’t know how to belong, but he does know—perhaps because it’s easier—how to alienate those around him, even if they’re worth getting to know. Art, of course, is the exception. For anyone who’s had a period in life when it seems like only one person in the world understands, and how fragile that understanding is, like a stray sharp edge would wipe it from existence, “Pop Art” has more than a kernel of emotional truth to it.
In case that weren’t enough, Hill also gets a lot of imagistic mileage out of Art’s condition, a blessing and a curse to the young Roth. Art gets tied to the leg of a lab table “in a squeaky granny knot, head, arms, body, and all.” The reigning bullies whack him into the air with a wiffle ball bat, trying to get him onto the school’s roof. Yet Art recognizes his specialness has a use, too. He thinks he’d be a perfect astronaut, being nearly weightless already and having no muscles that could atrophy. In a game they call Spy Satellite, the narrator loops Art to a bunch of balloons to take pictures from the air. And when Art tries at the end to find the sky’s opening into space, “his left arm pulled high over his head, the balloons attached to his wrist,” it is the most fitting final glimpse of him we get, the ending (of Art’s story) we’ve been gently drifting toward.
But “Pop Art” doesn’t quite end there. The narrator has a little more to tell us about life after Art, particularly his marriage to an inflatable woman. It’s like a final reminder of how he is our narrative stand-in. We should all be lucky enough to find people like Art—those who understand us, however unusual they may be—and later maybe we can find others who, even as we build futures together, remind us of our past, one touched both by sorrow and by joy.