By Neil Smith
Bang Crunch is the debut of Montreal writer Neil Smith, with the mix of good and bad you can expect from a first collection. In the first place he shows a willingness to experiment and take risks in stories that are bursting with an almost careless variety. One story alternates between the voices of a glove and a shoe (the latter falling to Earth after being blown off the foot of an exploding astronaut) while “Bang Crunch” is about a girl with an imaginatively literary disease that causes her to grow old at super-speed and then become young again.
Along with this playful edginess Smith is also capable of surprising psychological intensity. His characters are wired with feeling – vulnerable, anxious, and raw. They fear the consequences of emotional exposure. Relationships are stretched taut to the point of snapping into violence, either in physical aggression or forms of passive abuse. The two best stories, “Green Fluorescent Protein” and “Jaybird” are both concerned with this sort of risk-taking. The former is a sharply honest account of coming out that is forceful and direct without being explicit. “Jaybird” presents the theme of emotional risk and exposure in the form of an experimental amateur theatrical. Even as drama, however, the danger and violence on display are palpable.
The more disappointing aspects of the book can also be attributed to it being a first effort. The writing has some of the smell of a creative writing program about it. This is an easy and increasingly common criticism leveled at new books and needs to be explained. What I mean by it, first of all, is an obvious to the point of being awkward use of imagery. The images here are undigested, straining for attention. A mother watches her baby in an incubator and sees its organs beneath the skin “the way shrimp is visible under the rice paper of a spring roll.” A woman’s dreadlocks are “tied atop her head like a bonsai tree.” A male stripper waggles “his genitals like a clown twisting a dachshund out of party balloons.” Willow trees sway in the breeze “like giant hula dancers.”
Exotic images like these, however true or false, interrupt the rhythm of the story. Which in turn draws attention to the weakness of Smith’s ear. Much of the dialogue has a written feel to it rather than the rough grace of real speech. And the stories themselves are constructed in an obvious, mannered way, tending to round off into the kind of poetically concise faux-epiphanic ending that is now very popular, as well as predictable.
But this is a promising debut. Smith’s insight into human nature and his ability to map the perilous no-man’s-land lying between family, friends, enemies and lovers, is consistent and well rendered. These are strengths that should only develop further as the few wrinkles in his writing get ironed out.
Review first published March 17, 2007.