REVIEW: Byzantium by Ben Stroud

Any slush pile reader can tell you how often we see gimmicks masquerading as short stories, faux-histories and parody articles that create (or try to create) fictional worlds, too often without any payoff. Saunders, Egan, and McSweeney’s are the most successful purveyors of super solid gimmick stories — but they’re also responsible for recruiting an army of weak imitators. So when I received a review copy of Ben Stroud’s Byzantium — with back-cover references to globe-trotting and even the dreaded historical fiction designation — I’ll admit I feared the worst.

How wrong I was, and what a pleasure this book is. Each of Stroud’s stories and each of his characters — a horny teenaged roofer looking for a date in tornado-ravaged Texas; a jealous, cuckolded devotee to a new religion — inform their historical moments not with pedantic summary but with the well-placed detail: a teacher, whose wife catches him cheating, sits in one of his students’ chairs and begs forgiveness; at dinner, an in-over-his-head spy is fed “turtles cooked in their own shells.” A playfulness with language abounds as well, an ability to make fresh the mundane: “The news,” narrates one character, speaking of a particularly confounding revelation, “cinched around my cerebellum so tight I couldn’t even twitch.”

For a collection of stories as dense and varied as those found here, summary is superfluous. But I’ll say this:

Stroud works as well in the historical mode as any writer I’ve recently encountered

, leading the reader across millennia — from seventh-century Constantinople (in “Byzantium,” which first appeared in Electric Literature no. 4) to the antebellum American South (in “Borden’s Meat Biscuit,” about an unhinged inventor tasked — somewhat hilariously — with concocting a proto-Spam for rogue soldiers looking to capture Honduras for the Confederacy). At the start of each new story, the reader knows not where she’s going, nor with whom, only that her guide will likely make someone, somewhere her victim. For a writer so clearly influenced by the stories of Sherlock Holmes (see “The Moor,” the final story in this collection), this is part of Stroud’s mystery.

It’s “The Moor,” in particular, that stands out, with its straightforward reimagination of these Holmsian characters and themes (Our narrator asks: “How does one compare Burke’s cases, weigh the greatness of his reasoned deduction in one against that required for another?”). Of all the stories, this finale comes closest to contradicting my earliest sentence, in that its distanced tone clearly and self-consciously mirrors an academic summary. But I can forgive this — am happy to, frankly — because in this story the form serves the mystery (yes, there’s mystery here too), the heartbreak (which reads surprisingly sincere), and, most importantly, the joy.

Here, the author does far more that his contemporaries: his play with cliché transcends “experimental fiction,” because his experiment works.

Stroud journeys with an earnestness (and I use the word positively), and without irony. These are stories not too cool for their own good, stories told in clear and straightforward language; their forms and styles mask neither emptiness in thought nor emptiness in spirit. Reading these stories, one easily imagines Stroud researching his subjects, becoming an expert — if he’s not an expert, then he’s a damn good con man. Reading these stories, you’ll get the sense Stroud found each one essential, and you’ll feel the same way.

Byzantium: Stories

by Ben Stroud

Recommended if you like: The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle; White People by Allan Gurganus; The Coast of Good Intentions by Michael Byers.

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