thechapbookreview

In the Land of the Free, by Geoffrey Forsyth

Land of the FreeIn the Land of the Free
By Geoffrey Forsyth
Winner of the Second Annual Rose Metal Press Short Short Chapbook Contest
With an introduction by contest judge Robert Shapard

Paperback: 40 pages, letterpressed covers
July 2008
ISBN: 978-0-9789848-4-6
$12

Reviewed by Matt Bell

“I was born onto a cutting board in my mother’s kitchen,” begins the first of ten spectacular stories making up Geoffrey Forsyth’s In the Land of the Free. “Breadcrumbs stuck in my hair and skin. Every time I moved I picked up more and more breadcrumbs.” And so it goes for several hundred words, as this breadcrumb-covered baby narrates his parents’ dinner party from a cutting board and later from his mother’s dark oven. Starting from this absurd, fantastical opening story, Forsyth continues to carve out a country of his own from within the aesthetic boundaries set by writers like James Tate and Etgar Keret, bringing his unique vision and extraordinary gift for fresh language to life in this ambitious collection of shorts.

The more fantastical stories, with their frequent associative leaps and non-realist turns, include “Coins,” where the narrator and his make out partner keep finding loose change mysteriously appearing in their mouth while they kiss, and the title story, where a recently unemployed man feeds lasagna to an escaped zoo rhinoceros while enjoying a short moment of happy friendship before reporters and zookeepers toting tranquilizer guns burst into his backyard. “You’ve got to hide your happiness in the land of the free, if you hope to fit in,” the narrator tells us, just moments before the rhino arrives. “The zoo probably had already built a wider moat,” he continues, correctly noting that the animal wouldn’t be allowed to remain free, just as he would eventually have to return to work, to give up his happiness for the acceptance of those around him.

While the above stories generate immediate enjoyment from the sheer joyful weirdness of their associations, it’s Forsyth’s more realistic stories that offer the most concrete characterizations in the chapbook, as well as some of its most affecting passages. In the stunning “Hunchbacks,” two teenagers, Art and Buzz, nurse a bottle of stolen scotch while leaning their pillow-stuffed humps against the graves, observing that “the pillows… made leaning on anything, even a tombstone, comfortable.” While in the graveyard, they see the Agostino twins—“sometimes their girlfriends”—pass through with two other boys on their way “to the reservoir to fool around,” a recreation of similar trips Art and Buzz had taken with the twins. The story ends with Art vomiting among the tombstones as the Agostino twins pass them by, followed by the kind of disillusionment and failed change that resonates at the heart of many of these stories:

When his nausea had passed, Art watched Buzz take a sip and wipe his mouth on his arm. His lump had fallen down his back in a way that made Art feel sorry for the both of them. He didn’t like looking at his friend that way. He wished Buzz would fix it, but he knew that he wouldn’t. He knew it would stay lopsided for the rest of the night, in a place too hard for him to reach.

Other stories offer characters shaken up by similarly off-kilter events, as in “Excalibur,” where a childhood friend threatens to slice the narrator’s throat beside a high school water fountain, or in “The Wall,” where a sloshed man buys a nearby wall based on a salesman’s smooth talk and manipulative touch “on the places… where invisible buttons lay waiting to be pushed.” Forsyth’s paragraphs are full of poignant, surprising phrases and events, but because the logic in these more realistic stories is more psychological than dreamlike or associative, they may be the stories that feel most inviting, at least on the first time through the book. Luckily, this is a book you’ll read more than once, and the hidden gifts of each of its stories will continue to reveal themselves on return visits to their pages.

“Mud,” the collection’s closing story, is perhaps its strongest, and also the one where Forsyth most successfully merges his surrealistic urges with realistic characterization. The narrator is about to leave for a big day at work, where he has an eight o’clock meeting, one important enough that his boss calls him to remind him to bring his “good sense and [his] good judgment and the right frame of mind,” in addition to the all important reports he’s supposed to present. On his way through his house to the door, the narrator finds his dead grandmother sitting at the kitchen table, asking for a glass of tomato juice:

She had been dead almost five years, but here she was now, sitting in my wife’s old seat, covered in mud. I almost did recognize her because the mud had flattened her hair and darkened her normally pale skin. She said it wasn’t easy digging her way out of the grave and that it took most of the night…. While alive, my grandmother’s biggest pet peeve was having to ask twice for something she wanted. It drove her crazy. I poured her the juice.

“Grandma,” I said. “I hate to say this, but today is not a good day. I have to be at the office early for a meeting, eight sharp. People are counting on me.”

As if that weren’t enough, he then finds his father sitting in his living room, also arriving from beyond the grave. As he speaks with his dead relatives—and without giving anything else away, there’s at least one more coming—he finds himself torn. On one hand, the narrator loves his lost family, and wants to talk to them and hug them, as this rare chance to see them again is unlikely to be repeated, but there is also the ticking clock’s torturous pressure pushing him forward, reminding the narrator that he needs to leave for work, that he has his own “life to think about, the life that was, any minute, going to start without [him].” It’s in moments like these where Forsyth’s ability to compromise his characters comes through most strongly, as he places them into fraught situations that wake them from whatever life it was they thought they were living. In the Land of the Free, nothing comes easily, and what does come might not be what anyone would ask for. These are stories as pocket universes, tiny refuges and tiny hells, cunningly crafted by Forsyth so that there can be no escape without change, no revelation without cost.

Geoffrey Forsyth’s In the Land of the Free was the winner of Rose Metal Press’ 2008 Short Short Chapbook Contest, and a fine example of what has made that press such a leader in the form. In addition, the chapbook is printed between a French Paper cover with a gorgeous Indian silk and straw endpaper, making it almost as impressive an object as it is a work of literature.

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