Seth Fried - Equal parts fable and wry satire: We wondered if we were parasites. Last year, the people in charge of the picnic blew us up. Our job was simple: get the monkey in the capsule. The men on the walls are all dead. The scale itself ranged from one penis to roughly thirty
Seth Fried, The Great Frustration: Stories, Soft Skull Press, 2011.
"Channeling Steven Millhauser by way of George Saunders, The Great Frustration is a sparkling debut, equal parts fable and wry satire. Seth Fried balances the dark—a town besieged, a yearly massacre, the harem of a pathological king—with moments of sweet optimism—researchers unexpectedly inspired by discovery, the triumph of a doomed monkey, the big implications found in a series of tiny creatures.
In “Loeka Discovered,” a buzz flows throughout a lab when scientists unearth a perfectly preserved prehistoric man who suggests to them the hopefulness of life, but the more they learn, the more the realities of ancient survival invade their buoyant projections. “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre” meditates on why an entire town enthusiastically rushes out to the annual picnic that ends, year after year, in a massacre of astonishing creativity and casualty. The title story illuminates the desires and even the violence that surges beneath the tenuous peace among the animals in the Garden of Eden.
Fried’s stories suggest that we are at our most compelling and human when wrestling with the most frustrating aspects of both the world around us and of our very own natures—and in the process shows why he is a talent to be watched."
"Certainly one of the most original and startling short story collections of the year. In most cases, Fried sets the tone from the get-go: “Last year, the people in charge of the picnic blew us up,” (from “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre); “To begin with, I am a man,” (from “Life in the Harem”). Fried’s settings travel the globe and leap across timelines (including mythical ones, like the garden of Eden in the title story) with such dazzling skill that the reader simply surrenders to these highly-entertaining and thought-provoking stories." —National Book Critics Circle, “Small Press Highlights of 2011”
"The 11 stories in Fried's debut have the vigor of adventures, taking place in settings as disparate as Spain in the time of the conquistadors, a king's harem, a city under siege, various scientific setups, and--in the case of the title story--the Garden of Eden. Such an imagination is refreshing, but even more rewarding is that the stories don't rely solely on concept or conceit, and trudge forward into the lovely mess of strong characters wedged into dramatic circumstance. The scientists in "Those of Us in Plaid" have a simple, though not easy, objective involving an obstinate monkey and a space capsule. Science is clearly one of Fried's major interests: "Loeka Discovered" follows a team of researchers reconstructing ancient history from bits of bone and other artifacts. The lengthy "Animalcula: A Young Scientist's Guide to New Creatures" offers 15 scholarly descriptions of minuscule fauna, creating a fictional microcosm and illuminating it with the surprisingly poetic inner life of the scientist studying his subjects. While Fried's stories run to the historical or technical, there's a strain of absurdism in his prose that combines pathos, unease, and dark humor to add depth and give these stories a sense of modernity and relevance." - Publishers Weekly
“Seth Fried's stories are laugh-out-loud hilarious and wonderfully weird, yet his many strange worlds also have the power to haunt, echoing the sorrows and yearnings of ordinary life in the way dreams can. This is an inspired and inspiring collection from an important new young writer." —Dan Chaon
“Seth Fried has a wildly humorous imagination, but also sharp technical skills and beauty of language that weaves deep examinations of self and humanity into the inner folds of his crazy worlds. He’s channeling Saunders by way of Barthelme and Kafka, but also clearing a whole new territory of his own. Listen up and open this book: Seth Fried is the future of fiction." —Hannah Tinti
“Seth Fried should not be read by those with a heart condition, or by women who are nursing or pregnant. Do not read Seth Fried when driving or operating heavy machinery. Because his stories are not only addictive but dangerously good. He will make your heart stop and your jaw drop. You will suffer from bouts of thoughtful silence and seizures of hilarity and may even soil yourself with pleasure. Consider yourself warned." —Benjamin Percy
"These powerful and beautifully absurd stories create poetry from the collected voice of those who love and hate and dream and yearn. They stirred my imagination and time and time again seduced me into reflecting on the hopefulness and vulnerabilities of being human. The Great Frustration is a wonderfully original debut." —Alan Heathcock
"These stories are joyful, breathtaking, and ridiculously funny. Yes, there is darkness and violence and the constant threat of unhappy endings, but Fried is such a stunning writer, you actually love the coming disaster because it is so perfectly presented on the page." —Kevin Wilson
"In The Great Frustration, Seth Fried creates elaborate set pieces, populates them with living, breathing characters, arranges them for maximum chaos, and then sets it all in motion, inviting you to watch catastrophe and disaster and ruin. Even if you wanted to stop reading, you couldn't: his sentences drive you forward with a relentless rhythm, breaking your heart, then reassembling it, then breaking it again, and you don't even mind, because he's also making you laugh out loud." —Charles Yu
"A blurb on the back of Seth Fried’s debut collection The Great Frustration compares the young writer to George Saunders, and after reading these eleven stories it’s not hard to see why. Fried uses the same wacky concepts and possesses a similar sense of empathy, but to declare him derivative would do a great disservice to his work. While some stories are less successful than others, the best employ a first-person plural viewpoint that stands in for a town, a group of scientists, henchmen who have to squeeze a monkey into a capsule. The effect is fresh and unique even as it borrows from Faulkner and Eugenides, among others.
The chief strength of The Great Frustration is that these stories all feel thematically different from one another while remaining united by voice. So many times when I read story collections—especially debuts—it feels like I’m going through variations of the same arc over and over again. Fried never falls victim to this trap. The first story in the collection, “Loeka Discovered”, is arguably the strongest. Centered on the discovery of the frozen body of an ancient man, “Loeka” covers the rise and fall of a group of scientists tasked with analyzing the specimen.
We wondered if we were parasites. Had our relationships with our colleagues changed so quickly because of something latently flawed that they had recognized in us? We began to think that maybe there was nothing wrong with them at all but that we were just oblivious, emotionally handicapped monsters, doomed for the rest of our lives to commit the same sins against all the well-meaning people who would ever be fortunate enough to find themselves in our path.
Like the aforementioned George Saunders and even Etgar Keret, Seth Fried uses bizarre settings and kooky hijinx to get readers to lower their guards. Don’t be fooled. These are not light stories. Fried often goes in for the kill when you least expect it, mining an emotional depth from his intensely flawed characters that is rare in debut fiction. Stories like “Loeka Discovered” are as heartbreaking as they are funny.
Similarly successful is “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre”, a story told in the same first-person plural as above about an annual small-town picnic that racks up casualties year after year.
Another year, all the children who played in the picnic’s bouncy castle died of radiation poisoning. Yet another year, it was discovered halfway through the picnic that a third of the port-a-potties contained poisonous snakes. The year that the picnic offered free hot air balloon rides, none of the balloons that left—containing people laughing and waving from the baskets, snapping pictures as they ascended—ever returned.
Like the great cultural satirists, Fried makes a great point about how frightened people are of change without losing the humanity and humor that makes this piece shine. “Those of Us in Plaid” works equally well, lampooning the drudgery and sheer pointlessness of so many office jobs. A group of workers—designated as inferior stock by their plaid uniforms—are tasked with jamming a monkey into a capsule which will then be picked up by a helicopter and dropped into a volcano rigged with explosives. Read that sentence again. Fried’s at his best when he tosses convention to the wind and allows himself to go all out crazy with his subject matter and settings. In stories like these, Fried reads less like a George Saunders disciple and more like a very original, talented voice at the beginning of what looks to be a promising career. Stories like “The Frenchman”, about a racist play unknowingly performed by children, allow Fried to play up the jokes before bringing the emotional hammer down, a potent one-two punch.
Not every story fares as well as the above four. Fried falters when he abandons his innate sense of humor. “The Misery of the Conquistador” makes a turgid statement about greed in a manner similar to Wells Tower’s “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” but without the heart and wit Fried’s best stories convey. The same can be said for “Life in the Harem”, a strange, Kafka-esque tale of a heterosexual man dropped into an all female harem in service to a sexually frustrated king. Fried sometimes appears less confident in his ability to nail emotional beats. He occasionally over-explains emotional states—the reluctance of the people in “Picnic Massacre”, the self-doubt of the scientists in “Loeka”—that are already successfully implied. But these problems are mostly minor and indicative of debut collections in general, and the number of successful, hysterical stories vastly outnumber the few pieces that aren’t firing on all cylinders.
Seth Fried’s The Great Frustration is the type of debut story collection I love reading. Some of the stories don’t hit as hard as they could, but the ones that do work—in Fried’s case, pieces that mix and match his gonzo hijinx with a deft emotional darkness—signal the arrival of a new talent." - Salvatore Pane
"In Seth Fried’s The Great Frustration (Soft Skull Press; 192 pages), strangeness and morbidity are the rules, not the exceptions. Through a pastiche of bizarre worlds and landscapes separated by only one or two degrees from our own (which is, of course, already thoroughly frightening) Fried fashions telling scenarios and the nightmarish half-realities in which they occur. Deftly evoking a familiarity before diving into fantastical realms, the stories in this collection exhibit a surprising wealth of ideas belied by Fried’s spare prose.
“Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre,” a paralyzing allegory of modern-day groupthink, brings into plain view the ubiquity of violence in modern life: year after year, the residents of Frost Mountain gather for a traditional picnic — cotton candy, amusement rides, raffles, games, and everything else Americana — only to be struck, again and again, by lethal attacks. Despite the predictable continuity of harm, the townspeople return to be killed and maimed. Or, if they are lucky enough to live, their despair translates into a furious but ultimately futile activism. Downtrodden, the aging residents try to convince their children, the next generation, of the truth about the annual bloodbath of an event.
But Fried grants them no such luck, foregoing happy endings for more accurate allegories. As the collection progresses, Fried’s dark lampoon expands to encompass a variety of other themes in its freaky snow-globe — sexual angst, power structures, obligation, obsession, oligarchy, xenophobia, corporate culture, imperialism, time, and mortality. At rare times, the collection’s various messages yank the focus from aesthetic craftsmanship, leaving the faint smell of didacticism. But the book still completes its comprehensive arc, running smoothly on blood-oiled wheels.
Nothing is sacred; humankind’s quest for basic meaning and a narrative that implies the discovery of some ultimate truth at life’s end both get the scalpel. Not even small children are spared. In one story, a girl is torn apart by apes; in another, eaten alive. Furniture is thrown, heads decapitated, uncles mangled in farm equipment. Sometimes, Fried is content to just point to a lit fuse. No further pyrotechnics are necessary. “The Great Frustration,” the eponymous story in the book, depicts the prelude of awkward silence before an explosion into mayhem. In the Garden of Eden, the animals co-exist in what appears to be peace. Upon closer inspection, though, such peace is no more than a petrifying and entombing tension: each animal regards its successor on the food chain with a mixture of desire and imposed respect. In this Eden, where primal urges and social obligations duel, there’s no assurance that free will even exists. The gore is only imagined — for now.
Instead of showing strength with one type of stylistic approach and petering out in another, The Great Frustration is well balanced, not reaching too far toward one end — magical realism, with its mirror-inverted worlds and dreamland sequences – or the other: realism itself. In stories ranging in average length to flash-fiction brevity, Fried renders both mundane and mythical backdrops (such as the war-torn and corpse-riddled city of “The Siege”) with a convincing, almost eerie lucidity. He also deploys a subtle and well-placed sense of humor throughout. Serving as release vents for the pent-up steam of his horrific scenarios, these bits of droll hilarity leaven the collection’s fundamentally tragic sentiment. At the core of that sentiment is a disappointment: in natural processes, in other people, in the way the architecture of achievement never really turns out how it’s supposed to. Fried’s narrators reiterate this vibe of being lost and alone in a space where meaning is relative. In “The Scribes’ Lament,” he takes this idea to task in a parody of written history’s transcription, noting it’s as frequently created as it is copied.
The book’s final and capstone story, which concludes the notion of science-as-parable beginning with the collection’s first piece, “Loeka,” embodies The Great Frustration’s overriding sensibility. Read as a taxonomy of supernatural creatures worthy of Lewis Carroll, “Animalcula: A Young Scientist’s Guide to New Creatures” offers a series of brief, brilliant vignettes that make allegories of everything from the nature of emotion and the clockwork of the universe to the very act of observation. Weirdly wonderful, Fried’s story collection inhabits equally the philosophical and the visceral. “It is the same thin, watery membrane that separates fact from illusion,” Fried writes in “Animalcula,” describing a cryptid unable to be seen but loved intensely by all who study it. “It is that border between the real and the imagined world, which manages to create such a paradox of distance.” - Andrew David King
"There’s nothing redeeming about just being clever, so it’s great that Seth Fried is also smart-as-hell in his debut, The Great Frustration, a collection that is fantastically imagined, caustically realized, and genuinely touching. The 11 stories are written in such a sympathetic and talented voice as to make the material described somehow believable (at least enough to suspend overwhelming skepticism about such madcap situations). Some of the more fantastic stories include: scientists who experience a sexual revolution while examining a prehistoric corpse, an annual picnic that ends with random acts of violence, an imaginary world of fauna, and the failure of plaid-wearing lackeys to put a monkey inside of a rocket.
The best moments though, the ones that resonate and make me excited to see where this young author goes, are the less fantastic, the ones where the characters struggle with Fried’s chosen topic, Frustration. In “The Scribes’ Lament,” a team of monks attempts to transcribe a performance of Beowulf by a murderously insane scholar. Incapable of producing a definitive account, the scribe realizes, “In the end, it was not just our failure as scribes that we were dealing with, but the failure of words to penetrate the solitude of human experience.” Fried exaggerates the reality of his stories to expose how impossible it is to represent our own interiors in writing, and how the struggle to represent our interior gives us art, but also burdens us with the engine that creates it — ecstatic frustration.
In the title story, Fried brings us back to the beginning, to the garden before the Fall. In the garden there is no want, so the predators, the cat drooling over the oblivious parakeet, are left only with an urgent frustration to devour one another. The air is thick with desire:
“Below, the lion does not lie with the lamb, but neither does it tear the lamb into a thousand pieces, neither does it eat the lamb’s head in a single bite, neither does it take the lamb into its jaws and, with all the force in the tremendous muscles of its neck, whip the lamb against a tree over and over again…”
In Fried’s stories, the prey are freed from their driveling survival: a parakeet happily surveys the wonderful garden, lab assistants finally indulge one another as they uniformly eschew work. His characters take moments to abandon survival and find brief pleasures. When you’re facing certain destruction (well, we all are) “there is a certain joy in being recognizable as oneself”. Even as you are about to be ripped to shreds, would you be able to split from your body, your inalienable self? In “Animalcula”, a strange guide to invented creatures, we receive the highest personification of impossible fauna I’ve encountered: creatures who whisk themselves into oblivion through emoting. Observers are encouraged by the author to sympathize with their feelings.
Despite these brief respites, despite fervent sexual activity, these underdogs always return to their initial dissatisfaction — the Fall is, and always will be, inevitable. In “The Siege”, the narrator, who awaits certain death at the hands of the surrounding horde (who’ve also provided safe haven for the wives of the damned town, and who, apparently, have no intention to ever finally attack), muses, “Our courage is akin to patience. No matter what kind of world is created for us, the mind will always be large enough to give refuge, and so our visions of the world will always have their place.” For the bullied, for the prey, for the breakfast morsels, there is the dignity of a sympathetic existence. Of an ability to escape their frustration through a vision of the world where, like the resistance to the inevitable violence at the annual picnic in “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre,” it doesn’t have to be this way.
Fried concludes “The Great Frustration”, at the moment right before ruin. “They wait to be sent happily, savagely, into what’s next.” We are assured the world will follow the latter, but hope real hard for the former." - Max Rivlin-Nadler
"I’m crazy about Seth Fried. Or at least his stories. He combines a very cool sense of humor with a way of getting to the heart of important matters. He likes first person plural. I’m so new to this voice, I don’t always recognize it; I think of it as “reportorial” style. This was true when I read Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came To The End and it’s just as true now; I had to be told some of these stories were “we” stories, because it isn’t, to me at least, always obvious. I’m going to sic Zin on first person plural. [note: Zin refuses to be sic'd, beyond citing Brian Richardson's claim that first person plural is often used by members of minority or underappreciated classes, and manages to be first-person and third-person simultaneously, as opposed to second person which sometimes vacillates between the two].
I’ve already discussed “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre” that terrific story in the 2011 Pushcart volume that goaded me to get this collection. He’s been compared to George Saunders, and I think there’s also a bit of Steve Almond in there (or maybe I just think so because I just read Almond’s new collection). In a great interview at TheBarking.com, he cites his influences as Italo Calvino, Steven Millhauser, Stanley Elkin, Donald Barthelme, Rainer Rilke, and Woody Allen. He’s got an amusing blog and he’s been making trailers for this book, he’s got a brand-new flash on the brand-new Tin House blog’s Flash Fridays, and some other things. I’m obsessed with all things Seth Fried. Can you tell?
It’s a great collection. Wacky. Heartbreaking. Smooth reads with unusual situations, occasional technical tricks, and great emotional payoff. Characters who are confused because they feel things they don’t think they should feel. Funny-sad in that way that makes you jump up and down and say, “Yes, I’m so glad someone gets it!” and then makes you want to be the change you want to see in the world. Astute observations about relationships, current events, and human behavior. Every time I read a story I had the impulse to run around blathering about it. I’ve restrained myself since I knew I’d be doing a post about the collection. So now I can blather. Damn, you’ve got to read this book. (And no, I don’t get commissions)
In the interview mentioned above, he talks about how he combines urgency and concept:
If a story is all concept and no urgency, I think that’s when you run the risk of shallowness and/or gimmickry. Conversely, if a story is all urgency with no concept to make it compelling, you can start to run the risk of sentimentality and/or preachiness. What works for me is to decide first what urgent thing I’m hoping to express, and then to come up with a concept/scenario that suits that urgent thing. Of course, both the urgent thing and the concept can change radically throughout the writing of a given story. What’s important is that there be a strong relationship between the two.
These stories are great examples of this. The other thing he does so well is come up with details about a situation. I mentioned this in my comments on “Massacre” – the methods of massacre. In each story, there are little samples that are inspired, from the way scientists’ behaviors change in “Loeka” to methods of hazing in “Plaid” to how each animal experiences paradise in “Frustration.”
I loved “Massacre,” and I loved the rest of the stories in this book. I read it mostly in public, on busses and in waiting rooms, and I discovered something: while it’s embarrassing to cry in public, as I have over so many stories, it’s even worse to giggle.
“Loeka Discovered” (originally published in The Missouri Review and available online, along with an introduction and study questions):
Occasionally some small reminder will make us cringe. The outline of a tooth on a dentist’s window. A picture of a mountain. A small man on the street with a pained look on his face. Though just as often, we’ll see the stars at night and wonder once again how they might have looked to Loeka. We’ll try to remind ourselves that despite everything, we had believed in something. And what was the matter with that?
A group of scientists work on a prehistoric body they’ve named Loeka. They’re thrilled to pieces, to the point where one is writing poems to a young intern (his briefcase bulging) and work is flying along at breakneck pace. Then another prehistoric body, Big Man, is discovered, and the mood changes; the briefcase deflates, work becomes tedious. When the arrowhead is found, the mood changes yet again. And the press all along has a role to play, as well. Oh, it’s hilarious, but it also has something to say about science and faith and truth and belief, about the press, and about group dynamics (which is why first person plural is a good choice). Go ahead, read the story. Seriously, aren’t you curious about the briefcase?
“Life in the Harem” (originally published in Tin House):
The scale itself ranged from one penis to roughly thirty.
You want to read this story now, don’t you? A young man is placed in a harem (in an undefined time and place where such kings and such harems exist) after the king hears him moan while looking out the window. He fears the worst, but finds out he had no idea. And he learns a great deal about the nature of desire (and a little bit about what it’s like to be a woman). The crazy details amaze me. Penises instead of stars in the king’s little black book? A chart of women by missing or extra body part? How does anyone come up with this stuff?
“Those Of Us In Plaid” (originally published in McSweeney’s):
Still, regardless of everything experience had taught us, we hoped that one day we’d deliver the beaker filled with strange liquid to the testing facility so promptly and so without incident, or paint the numbers on the capsule so perfectly and so without dribbles, that we would somehow win them over. That we’d begin receiving invitations to their famed barbecues, or to a raucous birthday party at the nudie bar near the airport…
The only problem was that as we grew closer to the monkey, the idea of dropping him into a volcano and then blowing him up seemed, more and more, to be unbearably cruel.
“Thrills! Moral Imperatives! Perturbations of the Human Spirit! And a Monkey!” says the trailer for the story (at least I think it does; videos make my computer burp and fart so I avoid them). Barbecue sauce, too. Pay attention to the barbecue sauce, it’s highly symbolic. Another first person plural story, and again I didn’t realize it until I was done. The grunts, low men on the totem pole in plaid coveralls, endure a lot of bullying from those in more desirable coveralls. Hornet pheremones in the hand sanitizer? Monistat in the coffee? Maybe I’ve just been hanging around boring people all my life. The story goes exactly where you expect it to go, but it’s so well done, I was happy to go there.
“The Misery of the Conquistador” (originally published in Story Quarterly):
Practically speaking, my purpose is not to collect gold, but to collect gold with violence. After all, unless it is gathered in a way that requires as many men and resources as possible, gold itself is useless. If gold is to be worth anything, then the act of collecting it needs to involve shipbuilders, arms makers. It needs to involve the men who grind the gunpowder, the men who pour that powder into barrels, the porters who load those barrels onto a ship. It needs to involve men who rent those porters rooms, the men who sell those porters bread. It needs to involve the men who bake that bread, the men who grind that wheat. It needs to involve the farmers who stand grimly at the edges of those wheat fields, drenched in sweat. Gold is arbitrary. What is significant is the way in which it is seized and toward what end it drives the toil of many.
I’ve always been bothered (well, not always, but over the last couple of decades when I’ve been paying slightly more attention to that dumbfounding craziness known as “the economy”) by the idea that the economy must be “growing” in order to be considered “good.” At some point, when the earth is saturated with people (like, um, now), maybe we should think about a new model which makes a stable economy the goal. If for no other reason than because we’re running out of things to put advertising on. I had a brainstorm a few years ago while attending a Christmas pageant at a local church, noting all the thank-yous in the program to those who’d donated costumes or props or whatever: “Welcome to the Hannaford Christmas Pageant!” or “the Paul’s Market Veteran’s Day Parade” and eventually, “A Maine Savings Bank Funeral.” I suspect somewhere there’s already a “Vera Wang Wedding.” But I missed the obvious: “Operation Desert Thunder, brought to you by Haliburton.”
That isn’t even the main point of this story, however. The title conquistador has killed a native woman. He keeps replaying it in his mind, changing it a little each time, to provide different motivations or outcomes. His primary concern is to not look weak in front of his men, which means he has to violate his sensibilities over and over again. The story reminded me a lot of Wells Tower’s “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.” Maybe a little too much, though the concerns of the conquistador are different from those of the Viking. And maybe it’s more of a meditation than a story. But it’s still damn good reading.
“The Great Frustration“
Near a small pond, the penguin waves the dull blades of its arms up at the sky, as if already protesting the existence of a dense and impractical God.
It’s Paradise, and the animals in the Garden of Eden deal with it. I don’t want to say more, because it’s such a perfectly written story, it needs to unfold in its own way. On first read I was left with the sense that it’s all exposition, no plot. And it sort of is. But I think it’s supposed to be; I think that is the point, which the last paragraph makes clear: we know the plot already, and this is the exposition that makes sense of it. It’s also a story you can’t help smiling and laughing over as you read, while shaking your head in sad recognition.
“The Siege” (originally published in The Missouri Review)
The question now is: When will the enemy make their final escalade over the walls? This question seems to resonate within a larger question, which is: Why have they not already made their final escalade over the walls?
I have the same sense with this story as with the previous one: it’s exposition (though there is some backstory). And again, I think that’s deliberate, because the plot is the waiting, the dread. And, of course, how it came to this. For me this was one of the less-terrific stories, which doesn’t mean it isn’t good; there’s still tremendous power in the acceptance of responsibility for their plight: “But maybe if we had fallen asleep with our arms draped lovingly across our wives, their leaving would have woken us, allowing us to say something, even if it were only good-bye. Maybe if we knew our children better, it would have been easier to turn eating a rat into a kind of game.” And I began wondering about different types of courage along with the story (again, written in first person plural, making the responsibility and the pondering on courage a community affair). I think I just had a similar reaction as I had to some of Jim Shepard’s stories in Like You’d Understand, Anyway, that while they’re great stories, I really don’t want to suffer that much. And of course the fact that the story causes me to suffer is a testimony to its power.
When did the massive shortcomings of my youth become a door that I walked through?
A memoir of a major faux pas of his childhood: the narrator appeared, enthusiastically, in a play written by his gym teacher (that’s what I love about these stories; even the tiny details amuse and/or resonate). He didn’t realize at the time it espoused a “shockingly intolerant worldview” full of stereotypes about every race and nationality. He was a seventh grader, after all. And pretty soon, an outcast himself. It’s hilarious, and it leads to the larger question above. And it smacked me in the head. In one of my school choral events, we performed a similarly shocking piece about Christmas Around the World – “jing-ee-ber, jing-ee-ber, ah-mond-coo-keee” followed by Santa and his Mexican reindeer Pablo, among other things. Riots would ensue if the piece were performed today. At the time (before the 60s became the 60s), it was what passed for multiculturalism.
This is the story most recently written. That surprises me, since it’s my least favorite story in the collection. Which is ok, it’s the middle of the collection, it’s where writers and editors always stick the least-favorite stories. It’s not a bad story, I just don’t think the concept was worked in that effectively. But it’s still fun to read, and, for some of us, embarrassing, just as a memoirish tale.
“Lie Down and Die” (originally published in McSweeney’s)
My family was full of stories like that: dubious suicides, sudden disappearances, the police always suspecting foul play….It was as if our family tree had been written in invisible ink, names and branches disappearing as quickly as they were written.
This is the oldest story in the collection, written when Seth was 20. It kind of went by me. It’s very short – flash length – so it was over before I felt like I was struggling. And again, it’s not that it’s bad. A lot of it’s great – again the details he comes up with to illustrate the unlucky nature of his family show flair. And I’m not one to argue with McSweeney’s. But I just didn’t get it. Sorry. No, I’m not sorry, at least I’m pretty sure I’m not just swept away and handing out praise randomly; the stories do have to earn it, individually. If I’d read this on a flash site, I’d probably love it. But for me, it didn’t reach the level of the rest of the work here.
“The Scribes’ Lament”
We copied manuscripts with a keen understanding, one word leading logically into the next. Great lovers of language, we recognized the same look of fulfillment in one another’s faces as we worked, an abiding gratitude to the Lord for having given us access to the world of words, their firm and apprehensible meaning. After all, wasn’t that the foundation of our faith? It was the word of God that we followed. It was the word of God that instructed us and which propagated all goodness in the world.
Superb. This is that perfect blending of concept and urgency. The foundations of religion, what better concept? And there’s a little writers’ workshop thrown in, though that might go by anyone who’s never been in one. And of course it’s first person plural again. It has to be. Throw in Beowulf, and it’s the perfect story (I spent a semester as an undergrad obsessed with Beowulf). The story follows this group of scribes writing down the epic under the direction of Ælfric, with the unwilling assistance of Wigbert in the role of hapless victim. I don’t even want to try to summarize. It’s hilarious. But all the time, there’s the element of the scribes writing, describing, and collaborating to produce a cohesive narrative – and the difficulties they have doing that. The implications of same. Like I said, superb. And it earns it.
“Animalcula: A Young Scientist’s Guide to New Creatures” (portions published in Kenyon Review, Ninth Letter, and JMWW)
However, before you allow this skepticism to taint your research, keep in mind that your own vision manipulates reality more than any microscope ever could. Far less distortion takes place between the objective lens and eyepiece of a microscope than takes place in your own mind when you stare at your feet in the bath.
This is a collection of fifteen descriptive essays about various critters, plus one overall essay about observation. The critters are, of course, unlike any you may have encountered or read about. The kessel has a lifespan of a few one-hundred-millionths of a second. The dawson is beautiful. And the bartlett cannot be observed at all. Each essay starts with a description of the critter, followed by the implications. For example, the peregite, who live in rings orbiting the earth, are the first creatures to adapt to life in space; it is they, not people, who have stepped out of the oceans and onto dry land, so to speak: “On one hand, we feel usurped and irrelevant. Excluded and jealous. Yet, we also cannot help but maintain that first touch of pride we experienced upon learning of life’s great journey out into the universe. Despite ourselves, we regard those far-off rings affectionately. We wish them well.” One of these tales – about the delicious bastrom, which becomes even more delicious when frightened or in pain (can you tell where this is going?) – is available online at JMWW, thank whatever. As much as I tried to anticipate what kind of critters would crop up once I read a few sections, the directions these essays go constantly surprise and, while fanciful, again, left me laughing, or shaking my head in dismayed agreement.
But it goes further, I think. The bastrom is perhaps about addiction – or maybe just the need of people to feel something, anything, no matter what the cost; pain is preferable to numbness. The dawson is about the impossibility of love. The kessel is about making the most of what time we have, whether it’s 70 years or four one-hundred-millionths of a second. The lasar is about war. And the sonitum affects me most of all, the organisms that “increase in size when confronted with noise” because I connect it to writing:
…[H]uman thought is not unlike the sonita in the sense that, once agitated, it grow and grows. Stirred by discourse, thought begins to swell…
Can you see it yet, in the dish? Keep shouting.
You bet I will." - Karen Carlson
"Last year, the people in charge of the picnic blew us up. Every year it gets worse. That is, more people die. The Frost Mountain Picnic has always been a matter of uncertainty in our town and the massacre is the worst part.
This is how the story starts. I was befuddled. I moved along anyway. I’m not befuddled any more – I’m awed. I between, I was amused, angry, and heartbroken. Oh, this is good stuff.
It’s so good, you should spend $2.50 plus postage and order it from One Story if you don’t have either the Pushcart volume or his just-out collection The Great Frustration (Soft Skull Press 2011) which includes it, or don’t want to check either of them out of the library. Seriously. It’s that good. It’s so good, I’m willing to become a marketing tool for an anti-consumerist work. The irony just sings, doesn’t it?
I’ve spent several days trying to come up with a way to comment on this story, and I still don’t know how to do it. I got all analytical about first person plural – the “we” voice. Rarely used, and something I consistently confuse with a sort of omniscient first person (which, I guess, is what the “we” voice really is; I’ll have to go see what Brian Richardson has to say about it in Unnatural Voices, and who knows, maybe I can get Zin to start a First Person Plural study). I copied large chunks of text, tried to break them down into sections. For example, the peculiar ways the massacres happened each year – not just bombings, but hot-air balloons that sail away never to return, port-a-potties containing venomous snakes, a radioactive Bouncy Castle. Methods so bizarre and yet real they maintain an air of fantasy and a grounding in reality at the same time.
There’s little Louise Morris, one of the victims the year of the silver-backed gorillas (not just gorillas; that would be buffoonery, but to specify silver-backed gorillas, that is a fine touch there) who is remembered and honored and so generates many changes – impeachment of the mayor, deportation of four Kenyan exchange students, and a three-day holiday in Louise’s honor – so many changes, that “the only thing that seemed at all the same was the Frost Mountain Picnic.”
But I can’t seem to get a summary that captures it. How do you capture this – parents who bring their children to this picnic every year, children who insist on going, because “all children are born with searing and trivial images hidden in their faces, the absence of which causes them a great deal of discomfort. It is a pain only the brush of a face painter can alleviate… ” – and when an alternative is considered:
It has been suggested that perhaps it would give our children more character if we were to let them suffer under the burden of the hidden images in their faces, forcing them to bring those images out gradually through the development of personal interests and pleasant dispositions, rather than having them crudely painted on…
None of us has the confidence in our children to endure that type of thing.
Oh, there’s so much more, the “difficulties we face in attempting to extricate ourselves from the Frost Mountain Picnic” because “most of us are involved with the picnic on many different levels, some of which might not even be completely known to us.” Are you getting the drift of this? Because while so much of this is giggle material, the story also makes a powerful point about the society we live in and allow to continue, how economics and war and politics and everyday life are tied together. And how we have, under the guise of making sure our children have it better than we had it, maybe done them a great disservice in perpetuating this intertwined network.
In his One Story Q&A with Pei-Ling Lue, Fried says he started out writing a story version of Dylan’s “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues,” though it evolved into its own thing. He gives a hilarious account of how he came up with so many strange methods of massacre:
I was still finishing my undergrad when I wrote this story. While generating ideas for the story, I had a page in one of my course notebooks that I titled, without realizing how creepy I was being, Ideas for Massacres. I filled it up with as many ideas for ridiculous massacres as I could think of while pretending to take notes in class. I then proceeded to lose said notebook. As a result, I spent the rest of that semester terrified of the possibility that someone would find that notebook and that I would be arrested for plotting to kill people by means of strategically set-loose gorillas.
When I was an angst-ridden adolescent, my father often told me to stop listening to “depressing” music and do something fun for a change. He never understood how alienated I felt by forced happiness, and how comforted I was to hear the lyrics of Don McLean’s “Vincent” or the words of Herman Hesse – somebody else out there got it, I wasn’t alone! And Fried makes a similar point: “If any of the anxieties expressed in this story are familiar to readers, I hope that readers will take comfort in seeing those anxieties on the page. I always feel relieved when I read a story and the author is expressing some concern about the world that I share. It’s cathartic.”
Maybe if enough people can see that what we have been thinking is normal is not-so-normal, the picnic will eventually change." - Karen Carlson
"Seth Fried’s debut collection, The Great Frustration, is almost, almost, too much of a good thing. In a blurb on the back of the book, Hannah Tinti says that Fried is “channeling Saunders by way of Barthelme and Kafka,” which is pretty much the truth, and which means this book is basically a mix tape to my nineteen-year-old self. There is the hilarity (both in terms of humor and insanity) of Saunders, the fully churning structural and textual imagination of Barthelme, and the overwhelming look at systems and bureaucracy of Kafka, all wrapped into one easy-to-assemble package.
It’s basically a food processor of funny, intelligent stories.
Fried has two main gifts that are his own: deadpan and perfectly timed humor, and an awe-inspiring way in which he can condense complicated issues into stories that are genuinely entertaining, i.e. “page-turners.” Take, for example, the beginning of one of the funniest stories in the collection, “Those of Us in Plaid”:
Our job was simple: get the monkey in the capsule. Our superiors made sure to point out that it was one of the easiest and therefore least important tasks, a task that anyone could do, just as they always pointed out that our plaid coveralls were not as sharp-looking as their coveralls. But we felt that every step of the sequence was equally important, that, coveralls aside, everyone involved shared an integral role in the project’s success. After all, if we didn’t get the monkey in the capsule, then the capsule couldn’t be sent to the first prep station. If the capsule never made it to the first prep station, then it’d never get to the Transparent Operator, who would end up sitting there in his hydraulic lift, empty-handed, chewing on his moustache and writing swear words on his clipboard. If the capsule never made it to transport, it’d never get to the Project Elects in their snazzy red coveralls, whose job it was to slap the thermal readers on the capsule and signal the helicopter to come round and pick the damn thing up. Which would mean the pilot would just have to keep circling, wasting gas. He’d probably end up crashing before he realized he’d run out of time to fly the capsule over the volcano and drop it in. And if the capsule never made it up with the helicopter and down into the volcano, then the Advanced Project Elects, in their stunning blue coveralls with silver piping and decals in exquisite copper brown, wouldn’t have any occasion to flip the detonator on the incendiary bomb planted along the throat of the volcano. The whole experiment would be ruined.
And in fact, that’s exactly what did happen. We never got that monkey in there.
Fried’s imagination condenses the major plagues of contemporary life into tight, wicked, illuminative fables. They are about conformity, government, duty, loyalty (“Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre”); perversity and sexuality (“Life in the Harem”); segregation and ghettofication (“The Siege”); free thought and the manipulation of language (“The Scribe’s Lament”); and so on. When I used the cliché “too much of a good thing,” that’s almost actually exactly the case, in that I ended up wondering what trick Fried would pull next, what perfectly phrased and analogized satire would next be offered. But the book ends with its most unexpected achievement: “Animacula,” a miniature encyclopedia of imagined creatures which each distill some emotion, some particular hard-to-describe feeling. It achieves the most basic requirement of any good piece of art, which is, simply, that it puts life into a new, strange, recognizable, wholly clear-sighted perspective." - Michael Goroff
"Seth Fried’s The Great Frustration is the kind of collection that makes you see the just a little bit over how well it’s conceived, constructed, and written. There are almost no sour notes throughout the eleven stories, and there are plenty of moments of sheer brilliance. Taking small quotients from the greats across every field of prose, Fried is at once channeling Carver, Kafka, Saunders, and Barthelme, while never fully embracing any of them. As debut collections go, The Great Frustration is on par with some of the very best.
The titular story is a simple-in-concept, tricky-in-presentation piece. It concerns a moment in the lives of the fauna of the Garden of Eden, some time before Eve eats the famed apple, before the veil on the world’s true nature is lifted and all the animals (not just man) realize their predatory inclinations. The frustration so elegantly described is the inclination for the cat to eat the canary, but absent is any comprehension of how to go about doing this or why it should want to in the first place. Throughout the collection Fried catches his subjects at moments like this—on the path to being fully formed—the clerk who is suddenly and without warning installed in his king’s harem, slowly making sense of a new life, a siege that lasts so long that the city under attack is nearly abandoned save for the few last soldiers trying to sort out who exactly they are defending against, what exactly they are protecting, what comes next, and what comes a hundred years from now. “The Misery of the Conquistador” does this with a single moment in time, remembered over and over again, altered with each remembrance, belying a palpable ache and a regret for an entire life lived. Like the very physical Loeka, a Neanderthal trapped in ice in the middle of climbing a mountain, every subject in Fried’s book is caught at exactly the right moment, frozen, and forced to recognize its own inherent incompleteness.
But the best example of Fried’s skill is the final piece of the collection. “Animacula: A Young Scientist’s Guide to New Creatures” is a fifteen-part story—almost a novella—which classifies and describes a collection of newly discovered creatures from the Kessel whose life span is so infinitely small, half-a-million generations would have lived, bred, and died in the time it takes a bullet to travel across a firing range. Not only are each of the creatures themselves a tiny spark of sheer imagination, but the construction of the Animacula as a whole bears a remarkable depth. The narrator/author cajoles the young scientist who is studying the primer, berates him, congratulates him for making it this far, and for bothering to read and study science at all. In a few simple strokes, Fried constructs an entire new world in which this Animacula lives. “[Y]ou have two options,” the narrator says. “1.) You can reject everything, and regard the world as baseless fiction or 2.) You can take the information that your senses give you, albeit incomplete and interpretive, and attempt to derive from it rules and principles.”
With his collection, Fried has simultaneously done both of these things. He has, bit by bit, dismantled everything around us that we take for granted. From those pieces, he built an entire new set of rules and axioms, and then further made a whole new, little world that is almost exactly the same as the one that preceded it, just with slight, barely discernible, truly fantastic variations."- B. C. Edwards
"The Great Frustration is a sparkling debut, equal parts fable and wry satire. Seth Fried balances the dark—a town besieged, a yearly massacre, the harem of a pathological king—with moments of sweet optimism—researchers unexpectedly inspired by discovery, the triumph of a doomed monkey, the big implications found in a series of tiny creatures. Fried’s stories suggest that we are at our most compelling and human when wrestling with the most frustrating aspects of both the world around us and of our very own natures.
How did you celebrate when you found out your first book was going to be published?
- I was traveling with friends in Colombia when I got the news. We had just finished a rafting trip on the Rio Chicamocha near San Gil and had headed north to Cúcuta. We arrived in the evening, and when I checked my messages I found out that Soft Skull had agreed to publish my book. It just so happened that our arrival coincided with a local festival, so my friends and I commemorated the news by joining in the celebrations. We all drank lots of aguardiente, laughed, and sang songs until the sun came up.
Kidding. I’ve never done anything even remotely like that. The above anecdote was pieced together using Wikipedia.
Here is what actually happened: I randomly woke up one day at five in the morning. I stumbled over to my computer in my underwear and found an email waiting for me from my agent telling me that Soft Skull wanted to publish The Great Frustration (she usually calls with good news, but was traveling at the time). I nodded approvingly, and then went back to bed for a celebratory six more hours of sleep.
Your collection includes, “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre,” which you published with us in One Story. What happened from when you published in One Story to when your first book was accepted?
- Lots of stuff. Appearing in One Story is a very unique experience. By the time “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre” was getting ready to come out, I had already been lucky enough to have published work in some of my favorite magazines. So I figured I was more or less prepared for what it would be like to have something run in One Story. But unlike other magazines, One Story has everyone reading just your story. The response ends up being sort of overwhelming. When “Frost Mountain” appeared, I had more people approach me about my writing in just that first week than I ever had before. The story was eventually awarded a Pushcart Prize, short-listed in Best American Short Stories, and anthologized in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2010. So yeah, lots of stuff. I’m incredibly grateful to One Story and am convinced that the success of “Frost Mountain” was a significant help in finding my book a home.
During the editing of, The Great Frustration, was there any single piece of advice you received or perhaps remembered from earlier in your career that helped ease the process?
- I’m not sure if this is something I came up with myself or something someone told me: Whether you’re working with a book editor or a magazine editor, I think it’s a great idea to wait a while before responding to edits (time permitting). I routinely break this rule and am routinely embarrassed after the fact. I end up sending these really passionate emails about stuff that doesn’t matter. When I wait to respond, I usually end up seeing the value in a suggestion or coming up with an effective compromise." - Interview by Sam Katz
Last year, the people in charge of the picnic blew us up. ("Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre")
To begin with, I am a man. ("Life in the Harem")
Our job was simple: get the monkey in the capsule. ("Those of Us in Plaid")
In a dense wood, I kill a native woman. She approaches me from behind, perhaps out of curiosity, and I brain her with my helmet. Sheer reflex. Secluded from my men, I remove her simple garments, place my forehead reverently to her pudenda, and weep. ("The Misery of the Conquistador")
In the Garden of Eden, a cat steadies itself on a branch while quietly regarding a parrot. ("The Great Frustration")
The men on the walls are all dead. ("The Siege")
In the seventh grade, I starred in a play written by my school's gym teacher. ("The Frenchman")
My father was shot and killed the day after I was born. ("Lie Down and Die")
Loeka Discovered (story)
The Great Frustration (story)
Interview by Pei-Ling Lue at One Story
Seth Fried's blog