shining the spotlight on short story collections
Serpent’s Tail, 2013
On the third day, God’s girlfriend came over and said that He’d been acting distant lately. “I’m sorry,” God said. “Things have been crazy this week at work.” He smiled at her, but she did not smile back. And God saw that it was not good.
They say never judge a book by its cover but in the case of The Last Girlfriend on Earth, at least in paperback, you’d be right. This book is bright, from the neon green cover with pink ribbon text to the intelligent insights into the myriad ways love and lust can warp your thinking. In his third collection of short stories, Rich details how men and women interact in both normal and extraordinary relationships, played out in mythical, historical, futuristic or merely strange scenarios. There’s a suggestion for an experiment on the international space station, a look-back from thousands of years into the future at primitive pre-Internet courtship rituals, what happens when the sirens hit the Gowanus Canal in the 21st century, the blind date from hell, Cupid going off the rails, and more.
By enhancing the oddity of the situation, Rich skilfully spotlights the absurdities of human behaviour – the actions ring all too true despite the presence of Greek gods or space aliens. Even poor Sherlock Holmes loses his famed powers of logic and deduction when faced with evidence left behind by his girlfriend.
As befits a former writer for the US TV show Saturday Night Live, Rich uses humour to sugar the bitter pill of his imaginings of rejection, misunderstanding, jealousy, desperation and being pursued by an imaginary goat. His language is confident, spare, fast-paced and compelling, whether it’s from an unusual viewpoint – a dog, Charles Darwin or a scared inanimate object (as in the first story) – or employing an atypical format, such as a research proposal, an archaeology paper or a personal ad. The dialogue sings off the page and Rich’s writing has a haunting quality even in those few stories where there isn’t an unusual setting or premise, like Celebrity Sexceptions and, arguably, Man seeking Woman. There’s a lot going on beneath the surface; the humour gives the reader a handhold in a world where reality is not what we are used to, even if the emotional truths are the same.
Some of these stories are wistful (Girlfriend Repair Shop), some sad (The Present), some triumphant (Victory) and some wry (Center of the Universe, the Adventure of the Spotted Tie). The shortest is just half a page long; the longest over sixteen. But every single one offers a quirky and original take on love and relationships in the 21st century and beyond. So read this book, especially if you’re blinded by love or suffering from a broken heart and wondering whether to bring in an exorcist. Just put on your sunglasses before looking at the cover.
Read ‘Victory’, from The Last Girlfriend on Earth, here
About the reviewer: Liz Kalaugher normally writes about science. She recently discovered that short stories can be fun too.