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The Albertine Notes

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I started reading McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales a couple of months ago. McSweeney’s, in case you didn’t know is kind of a collective of bright young writers based out of San Francisco and starring Dave Eggers (he of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and Michael Chabon (he of pulitzer prize winning The Amazing adventures of Kavalier and Clay) among others. MMTTT, in addition to being an issue of the celebrated quarterly “Magazine” edited by Eggers (and guest edited by Chabon among others), is a collection of short to longish short stories of the mostly pulpy variety, written by the nations most venerable contemporary fiction writer. It’s a veritable who’s who of the New York Times Bestseller list: Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Chabon, Eggers, Michael Crichton, Michael Moorcock, Nick Hornby, Elmore Leonard, Harlan Ellison (to name a few). I tried to read the stories in sequence, but as the time of my needing to return it to the library neared closer, I began to get more selective in my choices (to date I have still not read Moorcock’s The Case of the Nazi Canary, but more because I started a couple of pages in and couldn’t justify a piquing of interest, rather than any particular time constraint).

On the day I had to return the book (and due to my inability to read dates correctly, I thought it was due the day before it was due, and missed out on a full day’s worth of reading), I began Rick Moody’s The Albertine Notes. It was a page turner like none I’ve read in a long time (not since Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet’s pre-apocalyptic comedy Good Omens). I stood outside the closed library for twenty minutes trying to finish as much as I could of the 66 page tale. Slow-reader that I am, I resigned myself to the conclusion that unless I stood outside the library for another two hours, I would not get the story finished tonight. I slipped the book into the return slot and came home
to sign up for a spot in the Holds line and cross my fingers that I might get the book again in time to remember what I had read that had captured my attention so well (an irony for a story so concerned with forgetting).

A few weeks later, I was back at the front of the Holds line and the books was waiting for me at my local library.

Which brings us to today, and me having just finished reading the story, which involves New York City being blown up by a nuclear blast, a drug called Albertine that allows people to remember details from their lives with perfect
clarity, but actually seems to allow time travel, and enough philosophy and mangled science fiction poetry to rival William Burroughs at his best. It’s a trippy, run-on, backwards/forwards fantasy that is as engrossing as it is hard
to follow, but it doesn’t really matter because that’s how time works in the story: it’s hard to follow and figure out who’s in the future and who’s in the past, and what’s actually happening in the present because Albertine allows the
user to manipulate time by deleting key people in it’s history and preventing certain events from happening, thus causing all kinds of anachronisms and paradox.

It’s easily one of the best short stories I’ve ever read and I tip my hat off to Michael Chabon for including Rick Moody in this anthology, and to Moody for crafting such a fucked-up, twisty-turny, compact, neat, work of fiction.

Other notable stories include another time twister by Chris Offut called Chuck’s Bucket, a freaky fairy-tale by Kelly Link called Catskin, a charming addendum myth to King’s Dark Towers pentalogy, entitled The Tale of Gray Dick and the golden archway to “The Head Jew” by Ellison called Goodbye to All That. Hornby’s story, Otherwise Pandemonium about a VCR that fast forwards through the future to an inevitably horrible end, continues the theme of playing with time, but the remaining stories are generally well-crafted (if slightly pulpy and occasionally supernatural) vignettes.

If you’ve got a short attention span and are looking for some good, short reads, I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales.

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About Amber Grapestain

  • (Closing the Italics tag)

  • I loved this story as well, at least until the end. For such a brilliantly crafted story, the last line is a bit too heavy-handedly didactic for my taste.