Sixteen novels and ten collections into his career, TC Boyle’s magpie voice is as manifestly odd as ever. Across this collection we meet taco chefs, VR addicts and fugitive patients, all battling the essential indifference of the universe. Boyle writes with flair and zip, fleshing out character and plot in short, strafing runs, before allowing each scenario to grow steadily stranger and deeper. Of his own process, Boyle has said ‘I don’t want to know the ending, I want to find out,’ and reading this collection, I was struck time and again by this quality. Whilst these twelve new stories might not conclude with enemies vanquished and kisses claimed, I turned the page on each with the sense of having been lead through a rich and distinctly captured pocket universe, one with rituals and worries all its own.
The canvas here is broad and empathetic. Stories tumble out of Argentine villages, near-future suburbs and grubby B&Bs sat squarely under the Heathrow flypath. Some offer conventional literary character studies, whilst others dip a toe into the genre slipstream, marrying broad sci-fi flourishes to portraits of weary domesticity. Boyle excels at sadsacks and delusionals, schlubbish types drawn into compromising situations, and writes them with winning humanity. The hoax terrorist and serial texter at the heart of ‘She’s the bomb’ is a notable example, an absurd and pitiable portrait of early 20s indifference. As her situation escalates, Boyle allows humour and tragedy to intermingle, never stressing one at the expense of the other.
The title story offers up a deadbeat father succumbing to the charms of a device which allows the user to relive memories in real-time. The sci-fi touches are deftly spun but it’s the protagonist’s growing addiction, the cyclical abuses and fraying ties, which hits the most lasting note. Really, this is a story about ageing and nostalgia, framed like an off-cut from Black Mirror, but delivered with none of the finger-wagging. Of the more fantastical stories, ‘Are we not men?’ is a black-witted standout, foregrounding a tale of marital infidelity against a homogenised, genetically engineered future, peopled with genius children and expletive prone crowparrots. At its most grotesque, Boyle’s writing reminded me of George Saunders’ early collections, but whilst Saunders’ wildest comic exaggerations are always founded on a bed of cosmic optimism, Boyle seems a little more ambivalent.
Perhaps the most striking story is ‘The Designee’, in which a lonely widower is slowly bled of his lifetime’s savings by a team of telephone con-men. It begins in boredom and ends in sadness and is told with compassion and a sympathetic ear. The con’s outline is clear from the start but the reader is drawn along, calmly, ineluctably, hoping for an ending we know to be impossible.
T. C. Boyle is the New York Times bestselling author of ten collections of stories and fourteen novels, most recently, San Miguel, followed by the second volume of his collected stories, T. C. Boyle Stories II. His work has been translated into twenty-five languages and won a PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. He is a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters and lives in California.
The Relive Box and Other Stories is available to purchase from Bloomsbury Books here.
Reviewed by Nick Garrard
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