Column: Retronomicon: Review: Burnt Tongues

Palahniuk, Chuck; Thomas, Richard; Widmyer, Dennis, eds. Burnt Tongues. Medallion Press. USD $12.29; ISBN 978-1-60542-734-8.

By J. Keith Haney

At the start of Harlan Ellison’s collection Deathbird Stories, there is a Latin motto: Caveat Lector or “Reader Beware.” It was a sincere warning of the upsetting nature of the stories that were contained within the covers of that volume. Such a motto should be affixed to the front of Burnt Tongues but for vastly different reasons. The short stories found within this collection can be equally upsetting – but only because they are much more pointless.

The first warning sign that prospective readers may have wasted their money can be found in the first introduction. Yes, you read that right – the first introduction, entitled “The Power of Persisting.” Within it, the collection’s lead editor Chuck Palahniuk namedrops a few famous books he hated the first time he read them to prove his point about how his favorite books are the ones he never finished reading. His statements are enough to make one wonder how he feels about people who managed to actually finish what he failed to do the first time.

He makes one bold claim about how young people want mirrors and older people want art, a claim that Ray Bradbury likely would have called him on. Indeed, he diagnoses his earlier problems with everything from Slaughterhouse Five to 1984 as being dissatisfied with the books not being about him. He actually wants the reader to actively dislike the stories in his collection, which he sums up with this oh-so-clever turn of phrase: “What you resist persists.”

What is particularly off-putting about this glorified horn-tooting is that he seems to think that the stories within contain some merit that will eventually hit the reader where they live. In turn, they will eventually make the reader hail and acknowledge these stories as art. No editors who write an introduction to their own collection should ever be this bold unless they can deliver.

Of course, we’re not allowed the privilege of jumping straight into this because there is that second introduction to wade through by the other two editors of this collection, Dennis Widmyer and Richard Thomas. This one covers “The Genesis of Burnt Tongues,” just in case you wanted to wait on the actual stories themselves a little longer. It’s a fairly uninteresting piece of flummery about the rather dull way this collection came together. If you’ve ever been part of a writer’s workshop, you already know the major plot points outlined here. This only seems to exist to try the patience of the reader who would like to get to the stories proper. “Genesis” would have been better served being at the end of the collection. Putting it here seems to betray an inferiority complex on whether readers will actually want to get that far.

After this, the reader finally gets into the stories themselves and … sigh … a reviewer is under no obligation to be kind. Indeed, the kindest thing he or she can do for something that is truly awful, self-indulgent and too high on its own fumes of self-importance is to point all those unattractive qualities out at length. Therefore, it is this reviewer’s great regret that he must do these things here.

Only the first story shows some promise, “Live It Down” by Neil Krolicki, which chronicles the botched suicide of three girls following instructions off the Internet on how to make your own personal gas chamber. The narrator is a believably written teenage girl, a mixture of sullen pain and naïve faith in things that she shouldn’t trust, and you actually do feel a bit for her and her friends when the attempt fails. It recalls the fiction of Andrew Vachss in its ugly plot.

The rest of the stories do not deserve to be named, nor their authors remembered for them. The best compliment one can give is the amount of detail the writers put into such things as the persistent PTSD of a woman coming off a bad relationship and trapped in an equally bad job, the ugly reality of an animal shelter and what happens to its animals eventually, and the frustration over not having the answers to a test. None of that excuses them for mistaking such detail for good writing as a whole, but it is an achievement.

For all the claims of being “art,” the writing here reeks of being more like the self-indulgent “mirrors” that Mr. Palahniuk derided in his introduction. The stories are largely pointless, plotless meanderings that just sort of sit there and attempt to make up for in the aforementioned detail what the stories lack in movement. The main characters are largely static; their lives by the end of their stories basically continue in much the same way they were going before the story even started. Those lives are so gray, dull and bitter that you’d wonder why anyone would want to write about most of them in the first place. The worlds they inhabit are drab little affairs which come off as even less interesting than the characters themselves. One story abruptly stops after a character finishes up telling his lover a dream (which has been teased out bit by bit over the course of the story) to the point where you may feel like screaming, “That’s it?! Did this author just have a case of writer’s block and not tell anyone?”

None of these stories truly has any staying power, coming off more as a collection of a high school writers’ club weekly work than a professional publication. Comparing them with the ignoble decline and fall of Jay Gatsby, the final victory of Big Brother over the individual, and the alternately amusing and horrifying exploits of a hapless time traveler who wound up witnessing the bombing of Dresden is like comparing the Himalayas to a series of anthills. The ants in question may constructed them with pride but there’s no way they’re ever going to be as big as those fabled mountains.

In short, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Kurt Vonnegut, and George Orwell are in absolutely no danger whatsoever of being replaced by anyone in this collection. The wallets and feelings of the readers who buy this sorry excuse of work are likely the only things that are really going to feel burned.