The Popular and the Absurd: Everyone Wants to be Ambassador to France by Bryan Hurt

by Sean Bernard

Debut collections can often be clunky grab-bags of styles, themes, and tones, so it’s refreshing to be able to so easily to categorize Bryan Hurt’s debut, Everyone Wants to be Ambassador to France. The stories are quick and sizzlingly-sweet bursts of the popular and the absurd. This is readily apparent in glancing at the collection-ending bibliography which nods to a wealth of disparate sources, including classic memoirs, recent news reports, science manuals, “and,” as Hurt ends the book, “of course, Wikipedia.” The ebullient stories in Everyone read almost like episodes of Scooby Doo, featuring hijinks and guest appearances by just about everyone but the Harlem Globetrotters. Historical cameos are made by figures including abolitionist Thomas Day, astronomer Tycho Brahe, and astronaut Alan Bean; Google co-founder Larry Page and author/filmmaker Miranda July (her breasts only somewhat prominently) also appear; and among many, we’re given popular references to Star Wars, Back to the Future, and Sleeping Beauty. And that’s not even mentioning the stories’ frequently zany set-ups: time travel, zombie apocalypses, self-driving cars, the afterlife, the creation of universes and, silliest of all, marriage.

On concept alone, this is a fun and ebullient collection. But it’s not entirely true to say that wild references and absurd situations are its most notable aspects. Hurt’s skillful deployment of humor is as just remarkable. His timing is consistently precise and patient, and it is always bone dry. Here, in “The Bilingual School,” concerned parents debate sending their children to a new private French school:

French is the language of love, said Mrs. Davis.

But not amorous love, I hope, said Mrs. Cavendish, who happened to be our host. She moved around the living room, pouring more tea.

No, said Mrs. Eagle. Italian is the language of amorous love. Spanish is the language of forbidden love. German is the language of modern love. English is the language of self love. French, she said, is the language of brotherly love.

The stories are thick with such moments: absurd dialogue delivered flatly, characters straining and failing to do things great and minor, and very frequent passive-aggressive (and just plain aggressive) arguments between characters, usually husbands and wives, as in “Honeymoon”: “I’m not fighting,” she said, “you’re fighting.” “You’re fighting,” he said. “You’re the one who’s fighting.”

While acerbic wit and strange conceits help make Everyone stand out as a strong debut, the craftwork isn’t merely employed for humor: the prose style is spare, detailed, and vivid, and the plotting is often surprising. Many stories, such as “The Last Word,” “Honeymoon,” and “Heavens,” seem concerned with a central tension only to ultimately move well beyond their expected boundaries, ushering us into new rooms, rooms personal and sincere, as if Hurt, having seized our attentions with glint and gleam, is now ready to disarm us with sincerity. “The Last Word,” which begins as a wittily rendered domestic fight — a couple arguing about something they can’t remember — leaps through space and time until finally the wife, deep in a hole that the husband cannot find, enjoys the silence and emptiness of being alone. Such surprising shifts, plentiful throughout, give the collection depth and imagination.

And the imagination at work here is impressive. Certainly Donald Barthelme comes to mind in reading stories such as “The Bilingual School,” “Heavens,” and “The Fourth Man,” in which astronaut Alan Bean’s career is deconstructed into a sad yet uplifting journey. At their very best, Hurt’s stories even improve on Barthelme, stepping into more probing and emotionally complex spaces. “Moonless,” one of the strongest here, also calls to mind Italo Calvino. In the story, an unnamed physicist tinkers in his basement, making tiny stars; soon tiny planets, tiny civilizations, and angry, wary tiny people that confront the physicist. The resulting outcome is wondrous, as the story ends not in the light amusement of its conceit but with a lovely digression into the nature of creation and a convincingly sad realization about what it means to be a deity.

I don’t want to mislead and suggest that these stories are merely wild, hilarious, unique, and memorable; again, that’d be selling the collection short. Because finally: truly: really: more than anything else: and most satisfying and surprisingly: these stories are sorrowful. Fabulism, it turns out, is just the shell hiding a deeper human lonesomeness. Time and again, sad characters envy each other, judge each other, feel guilty, fight and regret it, fight again. As the narrator of “My Other Car Drives Itself” admits, “What I feel like most of the time is something like sadness.” Anxiety about happiness hovers over the collection — maybe a little too much — and the few optimistic characters who plunge ahead with cheer and confidence generally fail terribly, so much so that at times, the authorial tone even reads a little cold.

But this is rare. Throughout, the stories generally retain their lightness, and Hurt’s unique ability to combine it with a tender sadness is interwoven achieves great effect. Sometimes, as in “Honeymoon,” that effect is astounding, and we are given a bright bundle of imagination, control, wit, and sorrow. It seems suitable to here offer a metaphorical description: Everyone Wants to be Ambassador to France is like an intricate toy resting in your palm. It shines brilliantly. You look at it, awe-struck. You turn it this way, turn it that. Like the first Transformer I received as a child, it’s a heck of a toy, a delightfully strange and new thing, with layers hidden within. Except, wonderfully, this is not a toy at all; it is a book of stories, and it exists, now, for us all to read.

Click here to read “Spooky Action” in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading. To purchase a copy of Everyone Wants to be Ambassador to France, click here to be redirected to the publisher’s website.

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