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A Finely Tuned Apathy MachineReview - A Finely Tuned Apathy Machine
by Mark Paterson
Exile Editions, 2008
Review by Tony O'Brien
Jun 10th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 24)

This collection of fifteen short stories begins with a 63 word piece of slapstick, The Doorknob. That wasn't a good start for me. I began to think here was another one of those self consciously clever 'convention busting' writers who manages to raise an occasional wry smile but is otherwise just boring. Mark Paterson is not one of those. A Finely Tuned Apathy Machine contains a range of short stories from fairly straightforward social realism (Lost Dog, Pit, Worker's Compensation) to the futuristic / sci fi The Ketchup We Were Born With and Her Plastic Daisy and the Canadian Water to Grow it. If there's a dominant theme it's the young man emerging into the grown up world, but it would hardly be fair to characterize these stories as simple coming of age genre. There's a range of voices in these stories, a range of situations from the odd to the very ordinary, and there's a freshness about them that kept me engaged.

The IGA Kissing Bandit is a farcical story about a bunch of guys who want to set up the man at the supermarket who gets more than his share of the affections of the female customers. What better way than for one of them to dress in drag, come on to the foodstore Lothario and then declare his hand at the last minute? The reader just knows this is going to go wrong, and is not disappointed. Bester McNally's Fowl Tale is a dark little story in which the hero, Bester, retires after 40 years of faithful service in a fried chicken bar. The staff club together to buy him a tour of a chicken farm, an event whose grisly ending left me wondering if Mark Paterson is a vegetarian. Paterson doesn't mind giving his stories rather lengthy titles. The one that takes the cake is Casual Sex Bookended by Two Gratuitous Hot Dog Pizza Scenes. The hot dog scenes really are gratuitous, but in between is a nice little slice of life.

Paterson gives readers some serious studies of the sorts of alienated individuals who are right at home in the short story. In the aptly named Dysfunction Junction, father of one Bob is a sort of well intended but immature character who allows himself to be distracted from his wage earning responsibilities by his addiction to the arcade game Donkey Kong (there really is such a game -- thank you Google). He's really good at it, and he loves to see his name, all of it, in lights. Trouble is, it's not the sort of thing he can share with his wife or young son Danny. Paterson weaves a deft plot that brings these three characters together in circumstances that leave Danny wailing 'It's just not real', and you have to agree with him. My favorite story was Workers' Compensation, a warmly observed and rewarding story about an out of work beneficiary and the agency snoop who spies on him. An unanticipated turn of events sees a reversal of roles, and reveals something of the humanity of each of these characters. In the final story Her Plastic Daisy and the Canadian Water to Grow it Paterson blends themes of adolescent infatuation, memory, and time with a dystopian premise that sees Canadian water sold off to the US.

Paterson might still be experimenting a bit, as there are more than a few references to bodily functions in these stories, and a sense of abandon which sometimes takes over. Call it exuberance and it's less likely to make you choke on your cocoa. But when Paterson gets serious, as he does more than enough to make this a worthwhile collection, he has the power to create a compelling narrative.

© 2008 Tony O'Brien

Tony O'Brien is a short story writer, and lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: a.obrien@auckland.ac.nz


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