Douglas Watson’s debut story collection is chock-a-block with deaths, births, sea and land voyages, excursions to the library, philosophical asides, and things like wolves. People fall in and out of love, walk in and out of buildings, take two steps forward and two steps back. Futility is a theme of the book, but so is the necessity of trying.

Douglas Watson, The Era of Not Quite, BOA Editions, 2013.

Douglas Watson's debut story collection is chock-a-block with deaths, births, sea and land voyages, excursions to the library, philosophical asides, and things like wolves. People fall in and out of love, walk in and out of buildings, take two steps forward and two steps back. Futility is a theme of the book, but so is the necessity of trying.

"Watson lards his metaphors with specifics."—Kyle Minor

“Herein find fiction full of whimsy, wit, hurt, and terror. Wicked, as in wickedly funny, is in the mix, too, along with a prose style both seductive and sly. Any one of Doug Watson’s first collection of stories, The Era of Not Quite, can mend a broken world.” -Christine Schutt

“Once upon a time, an acquaintance of Kurt Vonnegut, having read all of the writer’s books, accused Vonnegut of putting bitter coatings on very sweet pills, and I am here to level the same charge against Douglas Watson. Yes, this collection is a relentless catalogue of frailty, folly, and mortal misery, but if you look beyond the cholera, the neck wounds, the burning feet, the bleached bones, the voids, the caves, the deaths at sea, the stillborn babes, the senseless yearnings of the heart, the grief and despair and profound loneliness, then what you will find, reader, is a tender, lovely, elegant celebration of the very idea of life, of living. These are vital and exceptional tales. -Chris Bachelder

Excerpt from "When the World Broke"

When the world broke, a certain farsighted county commissioner announced a storytelling contest.
     “Whoever can tell the story that fixes the world,” she said, “shall be a hero to the people and shall receive a hero’s pension for the rest of his or her days.”
     The county commissioner sighed, for the word days belonged to the unbroken past. Since the breaking, there had been only twilight, a perpetual neither-this-nor-that. Schools of thought had arisen to argue whether the world was getting imperceptibly darker or lighter, but the county commissioner had closed the schools down. The world didn’t need another argument—it needed a story...

If, as the book Hal Walker returns to the library in the opening scene of “The Era of Not Quite” suggests, the Era of Not Quite has been “running continuously since the dawn of human history,” it would explain a lot. In fact, it would explain everything: from unrequited love to a man’s brain in the street. For what it means to live in the Era of Not Quite is to reach for a thing, and not quite seize it. And then to keep reaching.
Watson is a very smart writer, and unlike many uses of that word—“smart”—in this context, I mean it here as a compliment, not a way to dismiss a work as technically clever but lacking heart or sincerity. Watson’s thoughts on this tension illustrate his sensibility as a writer: “I do think heart, or ‘heart,’ is important to my fiction—or any good fiction. Of course, you need blood too, or ‘blood.’ Can’t have one without the other. The mysterious stuff of life, in other words.”
Thus, on one hand, The Era of Not Quite is a stunning example of Barthes’ notion of the “writerly text,” a text that challenges the reader by constantly calling attention to its constructed nature (think Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”). Some of the greatest pleasures of Watson’s collection are the jokes he plays on the reader. For example, there are two distinct characters named “Douglas Watson” in The Era of Not Quite, and in the middle of the book, there is a…story? (one wonders what exactly to call it) titled “Special Advertising Section,” in which the marketing division of the Estate of Douglas Watson apologizes for the fact that The Era of Not Quite is not a novel.
On the other hand, because everything in the collection is in tension with its opposite—especially play and sincerity—this is a book in which literary criticism literally kills and the clever theories of music critics lead one narrator to complain, “Talk about missing the point.” This is because for Watson, the smart stuff isn’t about technical or philosophical bravado—it’s about fun. When I asked him about maintaining this tricky balance in his work, he called in an answer from Playland: “Well, the best way to strike a balance is to stand on two feet. If you stand on just the play foot, you’ll fall over into Playland. And if you stand on just the sincerity foot, you’ll tip over and be completely lost in Sincerityland, which is an even worse place to be than Playland, believe me.” Then suddenly he was serious: “My mother, who loved words and was better at them than I am, once approvingly quoted someone—I don’t remember who—as saying that anyone who thought words were mainly for communication was a fool. I’m paraphrasing. The best thing to do with words was have fun with them, the person said. Maybe it was even a quote on the Scrabble box, for all I can remember. My mom and I played a lot of Scrabble, and I’m happy to say that she won more than her share of our games, even toward the end when she was really very sick and didn’t have much energy.”
Watson isn’t much of a self-promoter, and he’s a fairly private person. He was open, though, about the way his mother’s recent death inevitably affected many of the stories in the collection: “I wrote The Era of Not Quite at a time when I was confronting death and loss and grief for the first time—I mean in a big way, in my immediate family. So I didn’t have patience for the small stuff. You know: ‘Bill drank a glass of milk. It made him think of milk paint. He’d been wanting to change the color of his living-room walls, but the question was, Which color was the right one?’ What I would say to Bill is, Who cares? Don’t you know you’re going to die? Get outside and get some exercise or something.”
This urgency pervades all of the stories in The Era of Not Quite. Most are quite short, and if the main character isn’t dead by the end, it’s probably because they’re talking right at you (one of the best pieces in the collection, “What I Did on My Summer Vacation,” is a dramatic monologue delivered from a cynical teacher to her alternately inattentive and smart-alecky students). Some of the stories read like fables and accordingly cut right to the chase: “Long ago, when fate governed the lives of mortals, there was a lad whose lot in life was to love a girl whose lot in life was to be abducted by a fearsome dragon.” Note: if you’re a bit put off by characters named “lad,” “girl” or “boy,” don’t be. For here, appearing where it shouldn’t, is my thesis, in two parts: 1) you can’t forget that a character in a book by Douglas Watson is just a character in a book by Douglas Watson, and 2) you’ll care about that character anyway.
The best way to test this thesis is to read “Wolves,” previously published in The Journal Issue 35.1, a story that uses structural innovation for profound emotional impact. The story left me so stunned, I had to ask Watson about its genesis. He said, “I wrote ‘Wolves’ in the year after my mother died, so there’s a direct tie-in. But I just wrote the thing—for a workshop I was in, actually—and then other people pointed out that I was dealing in symbols. Rather heavy-handed ones at that. And I said, Huh, you’re right. But I’d had no idea. But I mean, there’s music, there’s a church, there’s a library. None of them provides any comfort or any answers. And then the wolves come at you. That’s what it’s like to lose your mother.”
At the same time, Watson emphasizes that the story isn’t autobiography: “The autobiographical stuff might partly explain how I came to write it, but the story is not a coded message whose true subject is me. A story can mean many things to many people, and that is one reason I prefer fiction to nonfiction. And books to life.”
Of course I’d be remiss not to remind you that there are twenty-two more stories like “Wolves” waiting for you—wolf-like—in Watson’s collection. For like his character Jacob Livesey, the experimental composer, Watson’s best stuff “evoke[s] the twin longings that t[ear], although not asunder, the inner lives of many of his contemporaries: the desire for repetition” (that’s “heart,” the stuff you nod over, weeping) “and the hunger for something—anything—new” (and that’s play).

Enjoy. - Elizabeth Zaleski

What’s the point of reading a book when, regardless of the book’s brilliance, you’ll still eventually end up dead? In his award-winning debut collection of twenty-three fabulist fictions, The Era of Not Quite, Douglas Watson takes up this question by knocking off characters left and right. In one story, Watson tosses a luckless schmuck into the void. In another, he flattens a thoughtful library patron with a dump truck while the patron’s daughter contemplates wonder. In the penultimate tale, a seven-year-old girl, poor dear, is bucked from a newly invented breed of miniature horse. Deaths stack up, morbidity becoming its own joke as nihilism loops back on itself again and again. The result is absurdity, hilarity, heady contemplation, and killer prose.
Of course, there’s nothing like a good literary offing to cleanse the palate, and this book offers deaths galore. But Watson’s stories run deeper than clever premises and guillotine giddiness. In this first book, winner of the BOA Short Fiction Prize, Watson adds his unique voice to postmodernism, joining the ranks of Barthelme, Beckett, and Calvino and holding his own. With playful experimentation and linguistic prowess, Watson mocks the conventions of fiction, making us wonder what stories really are for in this post-literate era when the masses can read but literacy fails to deliver us from unexceptional lives. Before you can lose hope, though, Watson shifts away from farce, showering us with moments of linguistic sublimity that remind us why fiction endures.
Watson drops us into folkloric lands of kings, wolves, and dragons as readily as he places us in nondescript contemporary landscapes of billboards, busses and, yes, libraries of all things. Then there are stories where Watson muddles time, inserting props from commercial culture into the sparse world of the fable. Take the story “When the World Broke,” where a golden-haired peasant boy living in a remote village on the edge of a forbidding forest fills a water bottle—ubiquitous thing—before slinging a bag of oats over his shoulder and venturing off through valleys lit by thousands of electric lights on a quest to save his beloved ailing mother and the world. It’s as though Watson is saying, hey, this is the realm of fiction, an artificial space, no? Fairy tale setting? Depressingly realist small town complete with Unitarian church? What’s the difference when neither really exists in a book?
Into these confused and anachronistic settings, Watson focuses his gaze on down-and-out characters, friendless, discouraged, but not without hope. Take Hal Walker from Watson’s title story “The Era of Not Quite”:
[…] It was a fine day on which to risk everything. / Everything, in Hal’s case, was not much. Although he had a bungalow and a great many books, Hal had no friends, family, lovers, admirers, or even detractors. Also, he no longer had the first half of his life. He did, though, have a job with the local telephone company, deleting from the telephone directory the names and phone numbers of people who had died. It was not a very demanding job (25).
Portrayed with charming deprecation, Watson’s characters are antiheroes for the new millennium, rivaling TV’s despondent office cubicle plebes for honors in futility. Watson’s characterization also has a touch of the metafictional in it. He makes us aware in every detail of the artifice of character construction. In stories such as “The Death of John O’Brien,” for example, Watson pokes fun at our contemporary lust for quirky characterization in describing the soon-to-be-dead library patron’s offspring:
[…] his eleven-year-old daughter, Hannah O’Brien, who could already say ‘shit’ in three languages, might one day appreciate the ironic humor that kept Independent People from being too impossibly bleak a novel. She might even appreciate it in its original Icelandic, for all John O’Brien knew (21).
Here, Watson includes us in the fun of conjuring up ridiculous people, the punch line being that these literary puppets are not so very different than those who populate our own reality, which might itself be a fiction, constructedness inescapable in a culture that layers text upon text.
Then there are stories like “Special Advertising Section,” where Watson throws metafictional subtlety out the window and ridicules the very endeavor in which he engages, the act of writing a book. Watson writes:
Well, here you are, halfway through Douglas Watson’s first and last book of stories, The Era of Not Quite. What do you think so far? Too many words? Too many deaths? Now might be a good time to take a break, maybe step out for a breath of air or head up to the corner store for a pack of cigarettes. Or perhaps you would prefer to press on, to get the book over with. Either way,  before you read any further, know this: the book you hold in your hands offers few of the pleasures of a novel […] (73).
Too gimmicky? It might be if what Watson did were simple. If all this story amounted to was the realization that the author is addressing the reader to pan his own book, then yes, this story would be droll. But here, Watson addresses the absurdity of what the entire literary world has become with a self-awareness that makes us laugh out loud. In a mere four pages, he mocks the celebration of the novel over the lowly story collection and the necessity of  superstar blurbers who serve as literary gods in an industry whose fans worship their heroes not for the sake of their souls or the goodness of mankind but so that they might join the ranks of the worshipped themselves.
Is Watson writing only to writers? He might say, yes, of course; that’s what our tiny insular literary ecosystem has become. And while this collection certainly is writerly, it isn’t only for the insider club of MFA alums. Anyone who loves language will devour this book because linguistically, Watson does things with a sentence that are so subtle and masterful, you find yourself startled by their effects. Take this first sentence from the title story:
The sun shone, if only to be polite, on a town whose residents were all indoors murdering, by one method or another, the hours of their too-short lives (25).
Here, Watson mixes world weariness with startlingly formal diction crossed with a jolt of something bright and intense. Watson performs these syntactical acrobatics again and again. It’s like Cirque de Soleil for book nerds. Just look how those sentences bend.
Here’s one more. The opening of “Against Specificity” goes like this:
The trouble: You want Thing A but are stuck with Thing B.
Shit, you say, turning Thing B around in your hands. Look at this thing, you say. It’s as dull as a bucket of dirt. It’s not half as interesting as a sculpture of a dog pissing on a dead man’s shoe in the rain, and you don’t have one of those. You don’t have Thing A, either.
Hell, you haven’t even seen Thing A. You’ve only heard about it from your neighbor, who works down at the Thing Exchange. What he or she said: Thing A shines like a gold tooth in the mouth of Jesus. Thing A is rounder, fuller, faster, zestier than Thing B. Thing A is perfect—it’s what you need. Why, it even smells good, like waffles (9).
Of course, this tale of materialistic desire is a commentary on capitalist consumption, but such a summation completely misses the fun of the ridiculous similes, meta-absurdity, and wryness of the voice. Watson’s work flips easy summations on their heads. Go deep, dear critic. This textual thing that Watson’s concocted has layers you could unpack until the cows hang up their udders and stumble home.
And when the cows are tucked away and you’ve fully mulled over Watson’s first book, don’t fret. You won’t be lonesome long. This Watson fellow’s on a roll. In April, he releases a novel from Outpost 19. And the title? Wait for it, folks—A Moody Fellow Finds Love and Then Dies. We’re surely in store for more postmodernist hullabaloo.
We don’t often hand out trophies for metafiction and humor, but shine your brassware, world. This debutante’s got stuff to say and the way he says it sparkles so loud you’ll erect a trophy soon for Douglas Watson-ness: the not-quite-cracked-or-lucid-rendering of life-ishness-in-fabulist-fashion Award.- Tessa Mellas

Summary: Douglas Watson's debut story collection is chock-a-block with deaths, births, sea and land voyages, excursions to the library, philosophical asides, and things like wolves. People fall in and out of love, walk in and out of buildings, take two steps forward and two steps back. Futility is a theme of the book, but so is the necessity of trying. -- BOA Editions

I should probably preface my review of THE ERA OF NOT QUITE by Douglas Watson by telling you that I "know" the author. He is a close friend of my brother-in-law's and I've met him a few times over the years, but I really wouldn't call him a friend -- more of an acquaintance. At a party a little over a year ago, he told me that his first book was being published, and (the book geek that I am) I mentioned that I'd love to read it.
A few months ago, Doug emailed me asking if I'd take a look at his book THE ERA OF NOT QUITE. He described it as "vaguely absurdist, death-haunted short stories." Of course, I jumped at the chance but I admit that I was a little concerned that this book was outside of my normal reading fare. I remember him telling me that this book isn't for everyone, and I was under no commitment to read it, review it, or even like it!
So it was with a little excitement and a little trepidation that I picked up THE ERA OF NOT QUITE. THE ERA OF NOT QUITE is a collection of truly original short stories that deal with a little bit of everything -- life, death, and love. But it's also about the living -- both the ups and the downs, the good and the bad. I realize this description sounds pretty vague, but it is difficult to summarize this book in just a few sentences. I will just say that this small book covers a lot... and packs a powerful punch.
THE ERA OF NOT QUITE also has some unique characters who experience some extremely unique situations. I'm not going to lie to you -- this book is a little bit weird! It is unlike any collection of short stories (or books for that matter) that I've ever read. But I absolutely adored THE ERA OF NOT QUITE -- and it has absolutely nothing to do with "knowing" the author. These stories were entertaining and often times surprising, and I actually found that I couldn't put the book down because I couldn't wait to see what was around the next corner.
Naturally, there were stories that I enjoyed more than others, but I can honestly say that there wasn't a dinger in the bunch. Even those stories that didn't exactly resonate with me provided me with a great deal of enjoyment. I found myself laughing constantly at the absurdity of the characters and their actions, but I also found myself blown away by just how smart this book is. I promise you that each story will at the very least surprise you and cause you to think. And I always say that if a book can make you think, then it's a winner. (I think Oprah says something similar but her words hold much more power than mine!)
There is no doubt that Doug Watson has some mad writing skills. THE ERA OF NOT QUITE has already won the BOA Short Fiction Prize and a few of the stories have appeared in Tin House (online), Sou'Wester, and Fifty-Two Stories. But he also has a slightly twisted mind and that's evident in the originality and brilliance of these stories. In fact, THE ERA OF NOT QUITE is so smart and witty that I actually scratched my head that one individual could create them.
However, I think what impressed me the most about this book is just how "different" each story felt. Of course, there are recurring themes throughout many of the stories gave the book a feeling of continuity, but each story almost seemed as if it could have been written by a different writer. Some were almost like fables, while others were dark and depressing, and others were almost whimsical. THE ERA OF NOT QUITE is truly a special and extremely well written book!
If you are looking for something a little different than what you ordinarily read, that's smart and funny and insightful, then I highly recommend reading THE ERA OF NOT QUITE.


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