There are few things more spectacular for a book reviewer than receiving a book by an author with whom you are unfamiliar, and subsequently being blown away by the contents therein. This was my happy experience with The Dark Will End The Dark, written by Darrin Doyle, who has published two novels as well. This decent-sized collection of 14 stories – 13 of which have been published in journals over the past few years — is spectacular and well worth a read, especially for fans of the bizarro-fiction world (for example, if you like Karen Russell or George Saunders).
Half of the stories are a couple of pages long, and the rest are around 15-17 (the longest story is 21 pages). I think it is the tendency of any reader to gravitate towards the shorter pieces and then, if they sufficiently pass the sniff test, invest the time in longer works. This is unfortunate, however, for Doyle, because I actually think his longer work is better and more engaging. The magnificent “Tugboat to Traverse City” — brief in its 11 pages, but still — which leads off the collection, “The Hiccup King,” and “Head” (both 17 pages) are, to me, the strongest pieces. Paradoxically, the weakest story in the bunch is “Happy Turkey Day,” and it also happens to be the longest, at 21 pages, but it is also an outlier in terms of style and polish, compared with the rest of the collection.
Another interesting quirk of the book is that 9 of the 14 stories have one-word titles that refer to body parts (“Head,” “Penis,” “Eyes,” “Hand,” and so on). Most of these stories are very short, and explore our deepest fears of the human body gone wrong (their brevity, I think, makes their darkness, and the conceits, that much easier to swallow).
Throughout the book, the reader gets the feeling that Doyle is in full control of the narrative, despite whatever crazy is happening, from a head that is declared “no longer viable,” (“Head,” 48) or a man whose face resembles a cubist painting: “The eye lay centered, socket and all, on his cheek. He tried without success to push the eye back where it had been, where it had resided his entire life” (“Face,” 140), or a girl who “hyperextended that inhuman jawbone to vacuum up my best friend” (“Barney Hester,” 83). This is important — no, absolutely necessary — for the reader to go along with the twisted, gothic darkness and put-upon characters that fills the pages.
There are a plethora of terms to choose for fiction that presents as realistic that which is not, in the realm of standard human experience, reality; “magic realism” is probably the one that gets bandied about most often and carelessly. Doyle, I don’t think, is writing magic realism, though, despite these odd, surreal happenings that are presented as rather ordinary — for example, if we continue to follow the fellow with the screwy face: “The man would turn calmly back toward the mirror, flip up his shirt collar and loop his necktie. There would be no reason to panic. This sort of thing was bound to happen eventually” (“Face,” 140). This presentation — that the absurd is bound to happen and we don’t need to panic — is what makes Doyle’s fiction work;if his characters freaked out all the time, the stories would be far less entertaining, perhaps insufferable. The term “Kafkaesque” is overused, I think, but it does fit. I also like the definition of the term “Bizarro fiction,” on Wikipedia: “a contemporary literary genre which often uses elements of absurdism, satire, and the grotesque, along with pop-surrealism and genre fiction staples, in order to create subversive, weird, and entertaining works.” What an apt description of this book.
Phillip Mandel is a fiction writer in the MFA program at Texas State University.