Super Flat Times BOOK review

Book Reviews
Super Flat Times BOOK review
May 1, 2003, 21:17

SUPER FLAT TIMES by Matthew Derby; Little, Brown & Company, 2003

“Wildly surreal” is about the best way to describe this collection of tales of satirical, fatal futurismfrom New EnglanderMatthew Derby. Nearly a third of these stories have been previously published in various literary reviews, winning Derby accolades and comparisons to Orwell, Huxley, and Vonnegut. But throwing around such names, however well-intended, is a disservice to Derby's boldly original style—which, yes, does take in Orwell's institutionalized apocalypse (1984, specifically), Huxley's prophetic warnings, and Vonnegut's gift of fantasy. What's really at work here, however, is an alchemical blend of Burroughs' paranoia in Naked Lunch, Borges' intricately imagined scenarios, Beckett's aggressive absurdity, and a good dose of Jonathan Swift's biting satire. Yet for all of his paradoxical parody, Derby is much more concerned with the ride—however insane the scenery and illogical the ending might be. Reading this thing all in one sitting will lessen the unique impact of Derby's voice, but keeping it around to dash back to when you need a hit of weirdness is a good idea.

The cogs who people Derby's tales are unflinching in their acceptance of the world and their place in it. Technology exists only to be served, and they exist only to serve it. (When was the last time you went a whole day without using your computer? How traumatic is it when your server goes down?) If they rebel, they are decisively thwarted and duly punished. Business as usual; no big lessons, no dramatic triumphs of good over evil or boots stomping on human faces forever.

In Behavior Pilot, having children has been outlawed (along with certain emotions), so government workers go door to door, collecting human eggs with a vinyl hose and a brass bucket. People have coveted government jobs on platforms in the sky, treating clouds with behavioral serum to influence the lives of those on the ground. (This fascination with clouds is a recurring one; in other stories, citizens live in terror as passing cumulus formations scrape the roofs off of buildings. In Derby's future, even fluffy white clouds are dangerous—environmental commentary or simply farce?) Home Recordings, quite literally, concerns a character working for the Museum of Real Estate and Finance (?!), who uses a special audio device to extract the sounds of previous residents from the walls and floorboards of houses, recording the conversations and sounds of daily life of those long dead or relocated. Then his wife catches him probing into memories of her life with a former husband.

And, in the meantime, people form a religion around a giant telephone that lives in a cage; all food (including popsicles and candy) is made of meat; and soldiers who've forgotten what the war they're fighting is actually about use a giant Sound Gun (four settings: Make Scared; Hurt; Very Hurt; and Make Dead) against an enemy that throws sticks and old VCRs at them.

Crazy? Far-fetched? Ridiculous? Open the paper. Drive past the mall. Turn on the news. Then decide.

-Peter Aaron

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