Christian TeBordo, The Awful Possibilities
Publisher: Featherproof Books
2010, 182 pages, paperback, $15.

peppered throughout christian TeBordo’s The Awful Possibilities are mock postcards, the images of which drip with cartoonish black slime; the handwritten text of which waxes and wanes poetic with such lines as, “Punky monkey, Booger bear, Bucket Brimming with Cold, Cold Love, sometimes you are so distant that I’m just a tiny speck, and I am trying not to fail to evoke you before I disappear.”

These postcards serve as appropriate ornaments for the nine short stories composing TeBordo’s lithe debut collection (he has previously authored three novels). Like the stories they accompany, the postcards are difficult to interpret—are those grimacing graffiti-skulls menacing, or are they absurd?—and dryly amoral. Those seeking life lessons will not find them here, although thematically, the book is straightforward enough: it reeks of isolation and the futility of honest human communication. The reader is introduced to a series of loners by turns hilarious and sobering, some drawn simply, others shining with detail and dialogue. There is a high school student planning a rap-fueled school shooting (“SS Attacks!”), a brainwashed child who has been trained in the art of kidney harvesting (“The Champion of Forgetting”), and a man from whom something irreplaceable has been stolen (“Took and Lost”). To use the parlance of sewing, a motif TeBordo often uses to sickening effect, these characters are threaded together by hopelessness, all of them bright patches of a quilt in which all the squares shout ridiculous things at one another while covering their own ears.

I have read a great many stories addressing the impossibility of honest human connection. More often than not, I read with annoyance tales riddled with characters who are merely self-indulgent—characters whose problem-free existences allow them the luxury of wallowing in loneliness. TeBordo’s is no such book. His characters, for a start, have significant, terrifying problems, problems warranting genuine self-pity. TeBordo, however, does not indulge them, preferring to flatten the inhabitants of his tiny worlds into abstraction. The reader is distanced from the characters, who are made ridiculous and forced to act bizarrely.

For a while, this is thrilling. What fun, you think, to be presented with acerbic wit and pause-worthy wordsmithing instead of the usual moping. But after a while, you may find yourself missing genuine human emotion. For actual human beings, even if they cannot forge connections with anyone else, do experience emotion, generally. TeBordo’s characters are simply not actual human beings. Their isolation, because they do not mind it, is thus unlikely to affect the reader. Such sterility is a hazard in abstract writing, which is, at its best, capable of distilling an idea or feeling into a crystalline, mysterious, irreducible force that socks you in the gut in a way that literal writing cannot.

TeBordo accomplishes this with some of his stories, namely “The Champion of Forgetting” and “Took and Lost.” In the latter, an unnamed thief is “a brilliant man…penning poems with his left hand and novels with his right, while beautiful and scandalous arias drip from his tongue.” The unnamed victim becomes increasingly pathetic following the loss of an unnamed, precious item, an item which consequently assumes the emotional heft of everything treasured in the world. TeBordo’s straightforward, gorgeous language is on display here, and when he tells you, in the closing sentence, that the victim “opened the door to The Awful Possibilities of a life with meaning,” you understand, and you are socked in the gut. But the meaning-value of that story is absent in many others, wherein TeBordo falls prey to the pitfalls of abstract writing. Stories such as “Three Denials” and “I Can Only Hope That He Still Believes in Redemption” are narcissistic, inaccessible, and sticky with artifice. (It should be noted, however, that TeBordo is a masterful creator of titles.)

The Awful Possibilities is doubtless a polarizing collection, but it surely deserves praise for its originality, intelligence, and wit. One hopes that in the future, TeBordo opens the door to the endless possibilities of characters for whom events have meaning.

—Sarah Morrison