The Divinity Gene

By Matthew J. Trafford

Story order is a point that doesn’t come up much in discussions of short story collections and anthologies, despite being an important practical matter that every author or editor has to deal with in some fashion. Even going alphabetically by the author’s last name (as is usual, for example, in the Year’s Best franchise) is still an aesthetic choice with consequences.

Serious editors, if you push them a bit, will acknowledge that the prime locations are the first and last spots. The most frequent advice given, and it is usually borne out in practice, is to lead with the best story you’ve got. After all, if you lose your reader right off the bat it won’t make any difference what you’re saving for the end. Almost as often, however, you hear the opposite: Leave your best for last and make that story run the anchor leg. There’s nothing like finishing on a high note!

Editor Zsuzsi Gartner may have been following this latter strategy in the SF anthology Darwin’s Bastards, a strong collection that ended with Matthew J. Trafford’s “The Divinity Gene.” A deeply engaging, tragi-comic look at the of cloning of Jesus Christ, “The Divinity Gene” stood out among a number of other excellent stories and announced the Toronto-based Trafford as a young writer to keep an eye on.

“The Divinity Gene” reappears in Trafford’s debut collection of the same title, where it keeps its position at the end. It is also, again, the best story in the book. There is, however, still some reason to question story order as things lead off with “Thoracic Exam,” a clunky and unconvincing piece that doesn’t fit well thematically with the rest of the collection.

After this rough start, however, Trafford quickly finds his groove. A number of the stories experiment with form, playing games with double-column text, web-page layout, and postmodern footnotes as well as quick shifts in point of view and style. They also have supporting casts of fantastic creatures like angels, clones, mermaids, and zombies. Occasionally these magical elements are used to provide an allegorical commentary on being gay, something which is front and center throughout the book.

This playfulness helps lighten the tone of a collection that is otherwise heavy with characters dealing with the loss of loved ones. These include a young man whose lover has just committed suicide, the parents of a class of children killed by their crazy teacher, a mother whose son has gone missing in Paris, and an old widower who talks to his deceased wife. Obsessed, haunted, riven with guilt and feelings of incompleteness, they all imagine ways of getting dead lovers or missing children back, calling on both science and religion to help. The moral takeaway, however, usually has to do with the value of letting go.

“The Divinity Gene” is a real triumph of the short story form, a piece that takes chances that all pay off, combining psychological insight with daring technical effects. Much of the rest of the collection feels more like apprentice work, clever and interesting but not always successful. And so the ordering leaves us, probably as intended, wanting more, keeping Trafford on a shortlist of exciting writers to watch.

Review first published in in the Toronto Star February 12 2011.

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