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The Ant King and Other Stories
Benjamin Rosenbaum
Small Beer Press, 232 pages

The Ant King and Other Stories
Benjamin Rosenbaum
Benjamin Rosenbaum's fiction has appeared in Asimov's, F&SF, Harper's, McSweeney's, Strange Horizons, Infinite Matrix, and other fine venues. He has been a party clown, a day care worker on a kibbutz in the Galilee, a student in Italy, a stay-at-home dad, and a programmer for Silicon Valley startups, the U.S. government, online fantasy games, and the Swiss banks of Zurich. He lives in Northern Virginia with his family.

Benjamin Rosenbaum Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

Surrealism is a literary mode that looks like an easy option, but if it is done well, it is far from easy. The most obvious characteristic of surrealism is the absurdist leap from one moment to the next as if it forms a perfectly coherent connection. Yet this does not mean that you can simply throw in any weird idea at any time and hope to get away with it. Because at the end of the day the story has got to convince us that it really is coherent or we won't recognise it as a way of subverting our notions of the real, but simply think it is stupid. The line between using the absurd and looking silly is very fine indeed.

"The Ant King," the title story in Benjamin Rosenbaum's first collection, is probably about 80 percent successful in its use of surrealism, a very good average. Sheila is kidnapped by the Ant King and finds herself in his lair eating Doritos and watching cheap television. Meanwhile her slacker boyfriend, Stan, must mastermind a gumball corporation and win his way through a computer game in order to rescue her. It proceeds by a sort of absurdist logic that only occasionally descends into the ridiculous and, bearing in mind the subtitle, "A California Fairy Tale," effectively undermines our notions of Californian lifestyles and aspirations.

Unfortunately, having shown he can produce one acceptable, if by no means thrilling, example of surrealism, Rosenbaum becomes something of a one trick pony persistently relying on the same few tools and devices. Surrealism quickly becomes repetitive, and en masse like this it is tiring and dispiriting to read. Too many of the stories that make up this slim volume rely on surrealism as an easy option: throw in any old absurdity, send the story off in an incongruous direction, replace plot with a rough sequence of disconnected incidents. But this doesn't add up to surrealism, only to a frustrating mess. Mercifully, most of these pieces are very short. Rosenbaum seems to have a penchant for stories that are no more than one or two pages long, barely time for any of the traditional virtues such as plot or character if such bourgeois nonsense were not derided by the revolutionary surrealist. A typical example, "The Orange," manages barely one page of text about an orange that ruled the world, until it was picked, processed and finally eaten by the author. Treat it as a joke that eschews a punchline. At least at that length, it doesn't have a chance to outstay its welcome, and like its fellows need not detain us long.

The only examples of this brief surrealism worthy of attention are the twelve short pieces collectively entitled "Other Cities." The longest of these just about makes it onto a third page, most are little more than one page. Each consists of a brief description of a peculiarity of some imagined city, and at their best they are haunting and intriguing. But they never go anywhere (at such length, how could they?) so at the end they feel like sketches for the setting of an as yet unwritten story. Since, if they work at all, they leave you hungry to know more about the place, that makes them more frustrating than satisfying. The model for this little collection within a collection is clearly Italo Calvino's Imaginary Cities, an entire book made up of similarly short accounts of a variety of magical cities. But the secret of Calvino's collection was that all these weird and wonderful descriptions were about the same place, Venice, a city of the imagination, and it is this that makes the whole of Imaginary Cities greater than the sum of its parts. Alas, Rosenbaum's "Other Cities" lacks this coherence.

Fortunately, The Ant King is not made up entirely of such abbreviated fictions, or that would be tiresome in the extreme. And though he can never entirely abandon his allegiance to the absurd and surreal, or the consequent tendencies to plot by piling incongruous incident upon incongruous incident, and to forego anything that might pass for coherent character development, there is enough in these longer pieces to suggest that, if he let himself, Rosenbaum could be a more formidable writer that this collection reveals. (Though I shall draw a veil of forgetting over "Sense and Sensibility" which relocates an unrecognisable version of Jane Austen's Dashwood family to "a large mole on the left shoulder of the Glutton," and which just gets worse from there on.)

There is, for instance, a nice line in self-referential humour in "Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes' by Benjamin Rosenbaum" which doesn't exactly do what the title promises, but which is nevertheless an engaging jeu d'esprit of an alternate history. In this world, Benjamin Rosenbaum is an author of "plausible fabulisms" who is returning home from an sf convention when he finds himself swept up in an increasingly implausible sequence of swashbuckling adventures while at the same time trying to write an alternate history story that avoids all such wild and colourful action. Among other things, the story reveals a talent for writing action scenes that is not especially in evidence elsewhere in the collection, though it would have been even better if Rosenbaum could have curbed his taste for absurdity.

Another story that would have benefitted from more realism and less surrealism is "Start the Clock." It is set in a future in which aging is curtailed and most of the people are physically (and emotionally) children; but the stage at which they stop aging also accounts for a special talent they possess. It is a fraught and complex situation which lays the groundwork for dark tragedy. But every so often the story loses its way amid the layers of weirdness introduced, and the power of the tragedy becomes dissipated.

But there is one story where Rosenbaum manages to keep the surrealism in check, using it to add telling flourishes to the story without dominating it. This is "A Siege of Cranes" in which one bereft man sets out to confront the towering evil that has swept destructively across his world. There are surreal images and encounters all the way through the story, but they serve only to emphasise our heroes sense of estrangement from his damaged world, and the evil, when it is at last faced, proves to be much closer to home than we might have imagined.

If only all the stories in this collection had matched the power of this final tale, it would have been a much more involving and affecting collection than the one we have.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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