Especially The Bad Things by Greg Gerke

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Especially the Bad Things is a strange collection that sparks the reader’s own imagination, challenging our previous perceptions of form, plot and character relationships. Gerke has set out to bend traditional ideas of what a flash fiction/short story should be, cramming his pieces with humour, sadness, twists and the odd sprinkling of something rather beautiful. While not every piece reaches its full potential, the collection is strong and enjoyable, and Gerke has a talent for beautifying the seemingly mundane.

The collection is broken up into sections, where each piece is grouped together by a loose subject matter and theme. The form and the order selection itself add a lot to the reading experience, as the reader is taken on a poetic journey through each piece. Setting aside the initial short story for a moment, we begin with ‘Autumn’s Disjecta’, which almost reads like an ode to the art of changing. In every piece, we feel as though as we are on the tip of something to be conquered, rediscovered, a glimpse into the initial layers of the characters’ lives.

We move on through to ‘Scribblers’ – a part that any writer will enjoy and maybe even recognise – a set of shorter pieces that discuss writing, its language, form and topics all quite literally, although Gerke in no way glamourizes this tedious profession.

Some Friends’ is one of the strongest and most humorous sections of the collection, delving into relationships and connections in a weird yet authentic way. Gerke highlights the beauty and confusion of friendship, analysing it in a raw and gritty way. ‘Suite’ is short but effective nonetheless; we whiz through these flash fictions as though we are looking around a bedroom, where Gerke sees humour in the mundane and continues with this overarching theme of the wonderfully odd. ‘Winter’s Disjecta’ is a perfect penultimate section to the collection. We get the sense of an ‘ending’ with these pieces – relationships breaking apart, decisions being reached and realisations occurring. However, the final section ‘Descant’ highlights two of the boldest pieces in the collection, showcasing Gerke’s skills and ability in writing about human connections, and exploring those darker emotions.

Most of Gerke’s characters in his pieces are weird and unlikable, which is refreshing to read. As readers, while we don’t always identify with them, they allow us to explore the darker, stranger side of being human, and to indulge in the outlandish and absurd. Many of Gerke’s male characters have fractured and unhealthy relationships with women, reflected in the way that they describe their female counterparts. While the descriptions may sometimes appear as cliché or outdated, the reader is encouraged to remember that these unlikable characters are exactly that, as well. Gerke’s characters are sometimes aggressive and rash, which twists the story into something unexpected. His uncontrollable narrators are muddled, yet they provide us with fascinating inner monologues and glimpses into a clouded mind. We get the sense that none of his characters are truly satisfied with their situations, which is why they often explore the ‘bad things’, delving into the negative and bringing it to the surface of their everyday lives. They wear their unhappiness almost proudly, unwilling or unable to change. An air of discontent hangs over the collection, which only adds to the strangeness of some of the pieces – Gerke knows it isn’t ‘right’ or comfortable, yet he explores it nonetheless, causes the reader to become mesmerised in these dark and unforgiving moments of gloom.

The title of the collection – ‘Especially the Bad Things’ – immediately suggests an exploration into the ‘wrong’ side of being human, and one of the themes which stands out in a lot of the pieces, is self-absorption. While the characters may sometimes try to grasp onto relationships and attempt to better themselves for others, their focus remains incredibly inwards and their biggest priority is themselves. However, it is enlightening for Gerke to explore selfishness – in society, generosity is encouraged and celebrated and although we know his characters are often showcasing the worst versions of themselves, they are still identifiable, for all their ‘bad things’.

I didn’t find all of the pieces in the collection enjoyable, however there were a few stand outs in each ‘section’, which showcased Gerke’s skills as a writer and highlighted the overarching theme of the book. ‘Manhattan (three)’ was my favourite short piece; the character is incredibly well formed, and the environment completely fleshed out, but not in an obvious or overdone way. The veiny, middle-aged woman, obsessing with her looks and her outward appearance, is completely realistic yet Gerke gives her a unique and identifiable voice, one that displays the inner discontent of such a lifestyle and explores the uglier side of this fake perfection. Subtle pop-culture references help to place the piece in a modern, yet oddly dystopian-feeling setting, which unsettles the reader.

In ‘My Unhappy Writer Friend’ Gerke delves into disjointed friendships, which is expertly done. Obsession, hatred and tolerance are all explored in this piece, which sees a person grapple with the erotic and depressing behaviour of their ‘unhappy writer friend’. The pains of creativity are shown by the ‘writer friend’, something which the narrator seems to fail to grasp and understand. Again, the character development is strong in this piece, helped along by the addition of extras such as…

“…Todd’s face appears coated in white makeup. He carries a vat of peanuts and jumps whenever someone uses a sentence of more than one word,”

…these characters who appear for no more than a couple of lines, but who add to the stories peculiarity. In the end, a lack of escape overrides the desire to break free from this strangeness; as his therapist advises, his freedom from his ‘unhappy writer friend’ is only metaphorical.

Especially The Bad Things is a largely successful collection of experimental prose, which encapsulates the ‘bad’ side of humanity and explores human connections in an odd and humours manner. Some pieces do feel little a forced, a tad too jumpy and superfluous for my own taste, but it can’t be denied that Gerke does have a skill for fictionalising relationships, whether it be to people, things, places or emotions. It’s an interesting collection which pushes ideas of the kind of lyricism that can be achieved over the space of just a few (or in some cases, just the one) pages.

Especially The Bad Things is published by Splice and is available here.

Greg Gerke

Greg Gerke is an essayist and writer of short fiction, based in New York. His work has appeared in 3 AM Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of BooksTin HouseThe Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. His collection of essays, See What I See, is also available from Splice.

Review by Mariah Feria

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