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A Man Jumps Out of an Airplane: By Barry Yourgrau (Book Review)

imageA Man Jumps Out of an Airplane by Barry Yourgrau (1999)

Print Editions:  Used copies are available for less than $5.

Ebook Editions: Amazon, BN (less than $4)

Arcade Publishing,   Author Website.

Summary:  Spellbinding flash fiction which is silly/fantastic/profound – take your pick.

Rating: 5 Stars.

Recommended if you like:  Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, David Byrne,  Erotica Flash  Fiction,  Rene Magritte art

This collection of short prose pieces (each about a page long) depict seemingly ordinary situations where fantastically absurd things happen.  They seem less like   like stories than  cosmic jokes or  Zen fairy tales for Americans. Each prose piece offers surprises and revelations. (“A man comes home and finds his wife in bed with a squirrel”, “A couple of girls are locked up in a big aquarium,” “I have the last pack of cigarettes in the world; but no matches.”) The characters themselves are less interesting than their situations; one page is enough for them to  fall in love or meet imaginary creatures or feel some grand feeling. A lot of the prose pieces are sexually explicit but strange (in one a man finds a map of Greenland on the inside of a girl’s thigh). The prose style is compact  and exquisite and  easy to read  (and suitable for being performed publicly).   Now that I’m finished,   almost none of the pieces have stuck in my head; all I retain is the memory of being dazzled by a rapid series of  unreal  images and events.  On the bright side, I probably could reread these pieces and enjoy them just as much as the first time.

What is the aim of these koan-like stories? Should the reader notice the allegorical resonances or  simply enjoy Yourgrau’s marvelous and whimsical sense of the absurd?   With Kafka or Buzzati, the initial situation may have been absurd (i.e., turning into a cockroach), but  the author spent considerable effort expanding on the idea and giving it an air of plausibility.  But Yourgrau’s stories are more playful than plausible.   I am unsure whether to call this a profound literary work — you can’t have real character development or serious drama in a form so compact and whimsical.  These kinds of stories don’t NEED to be profound — especially when the far-fetched imagery is so metaphorical.  In the Soupbone story, the protagonist jumps out of  an airplane while emptying a shoebox of letters from his old love; to his surprise he finds a falling dog also in midair helplessly trying to chase after a bone.  Why a dog? Why a soupbone? Part of the fun of these stories is trying to relate the imagery  to some universal feeling of dismay or anomie – if that is even possible.   The stories grab and intrigue me, but they don’t really move me; that is not the point.  Yourgrau  has written sequels to this collection using this same innovative short form: Sadness of Sex (about sex) and the NastyBook (geared towards younger readers).   This form breaks   all rules and takes advantage of today’s reader’s short attention span and the magical possibilities of prose. Highly recommended.

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