10 Bits of My Brain by Stuart Jaffe
Jaffe is a versatile writer whose stories span genres and settings, without ever making the editor and reader in me cringe or groan. The offhand manner of narration edge stories like Henry’s Son with their very own menace, while With The Three Fingers Case, Jaffe takes the reader on a romp into a quick homicide mystery–the catch? The dragon detective thinks a human did it, and his human partner is sure a dragon’s to blame. Over the course of the stories I saw witchery, voodoo, curses, and pirates (see book cover over to the right for a more complete list!).
The collection begins at the height of the holocaust in Nazi Germany, then moves to a tattoo parlor at the edge of the universe, then to a small park bench where a homeless man idles his days away. Though the pieces differ wildly in plot and genre, I sensed a few common threads I thought could have been emphasized to unify the tales.
For example, life is something to be endured by the characters, and death is often a release. I don’t want to call these stories nihilistic, but there is a certain acceptance and even longing for the inevitable closure to the arc of life. Immortality, as it comes to at least two of the characters, is no gift, and betrayal usually comes in the form or a relative or friend.
All in all, I saw good writing, solid story structure, and a lively wit. So why only a three? Two elements kept the collection from hitting a five. One was the lack of overarching theme or storyline in the overall collection. The stories spanned genres and meandered across an enormous array of situations and plots. In a sense, these really were ten distinct bits of the author’s writing experience, born of different times and different inspirations. Being a traditionalist when it comes to collections, though, my recommendation would be to take the stories in groups:
- Realistic (albeit very magical) fiction:
- Henry’s Son
- Bone Magic
- A World Through Patrick
- Science fiction:
- A Simple Gesture
- Black no. 7
- A Full Life in Twentyfour Hours
- An Appreciation for Dragons
- The Three Fingers Case
- The Final Battle
As it is, starting with the first story, Bone Magic, led me to have expectations that the collection was unable to fill. I was taken back to all the Soviet dissident literature I’ve read, and I was expecting more of the same. Instead, the next tale snapped me up into a space story of a man growing into his dark reputation, and then into the mind of a paraplegic in whose heart lay miracles. All powerful stories, but such that yanked me all over the place and refused to build on each other.
While I do agree that “Stuart’s work defies pigeon-holing.” (David B. Coe, introduction), as a reader, I would have appreciated more unity to the collection. Because each piece was so drastically different, I would have a hard time recommending the collection to a friend whose tastes I know, though I wouldn’t hesitate to encourage a fellow reader to try a discrete story.
The second reason is harder for me to define, and I would be interested in comparing notes with anyone else who has read the collection. For at least half of the stories, I sensed hidden depths and potential that had not been plumbed–the use of death as a plot device became, a few readings in, a story convenience, and the aloof position of the narrator (even when the story was in first person) created a barrier between me and the character. The stories have an engaging simplicity–but also an off-putting tendency towards a bird-eye view of the events.
In the end, though I feel the collection is well-written, the stories have not wedged themselves into my mind or clambered under my skin (Ursula LeGuin and Harlan Ellison have spoiled me!). Still, they are a pleasant, short trip and certainly worth it. I don’t regret the read.