(Burlington, VT: Fomite Press, 2016)
Mental illness, family baggage, corporate culture, backstory, mythology, bombast and pretense, the fog of memory and the haze of booze and drugs, and even just the inarticulate confusion of childhood: these layers of delusion, dysfunction, and social conditioning form the grim cultural landscapes of the short stories in Martin Ott’s new collection, Interrogations. His diverse cast of characters – including a seven year old girl toying with dangers and taboos, a homeless man who disc jockeys an imaginary radio show on the streets of L.A., and a possibly senile elder statesman-aged Richard Nixon, to name a few – all bumble through the garish and noisy clutter of an America past its prime.
The story called “The Interrogator’s Last Question” lays out a framework for Ott’s storytelling approach: as a former army interrogator himself, he puts his interrogation techniques to work on his literary characters, spelling them out explicitly in italics interspersed throughout the story. For example:
Make them account for their day, then grill them on any discrepancies.
Intimacy is the key to good dancing and unguarded conversation.
Silence is one of the most effective tools of interrogation, especially when a subject is pensive and nervous.
Here’s the real secret of interrogation—to be more lost than anyone in the music. The interrogator holds his partner close in the lights and tries not to let go.
The body tells realities we’ve yet to imagine.
But the story’s protagonist, a former interrogator turned corporate consultant, isn’t probing the mind of a prisoner or suspect for these realities. Instead he’s looking for a way to forge the emotional distance that has overtaken his disaffected teenage sons and his disconcerting wife, who has started getting out of bed in the middle of the night to dance and cry for unknown reasons. In the end, his interrogation tactics reach their limits in the world of interpersonal relationships: “Truth would set the interrogator inside of him free so that the man hidden there could emerge.”
My favorites from the collection are the brief stories that dive into the life of the main character with a sort barroom storytelling voice, like the wild ride “No One”, a story about a suave, charismatic, probably sociopathic guy who holds court in a neighborhood bar every night for weeks until he disappears without a trace one day. The story is written entirely in rapid-fire, poetic sentences describing this guy, most of which begin with the phrase “no one”: “No one could draw a cue ball to the eight with perfect English or stick the final double on bar darts with a combination of daring and grace that made him the target of men and women alike.” “The Policy” is also a fun, fast-paced story, the only one in which the main character is an institution rather than a person: a company attempts to create a foolproof, all-encompassing policy that will tyrannize their employees into completely uniform behavior while the employees take the policy as a challenge, exploiting every loophole in the tyrannical document, hanging pictures of Hitler and Stalin in their cubicles in response to the “one framed photo” rule and swearing in dead languages in response to the “no profanity” section of the policy. Similarly, “GPS Love Affair” depicts a unique, tongue-in-cheek intimate relationship between a young man and his technological device.
But both the quick shorter stories and the longer, bleaker stories all share a palpable loneliness that made reading them an existentially painful experience for me at first. All of the characters long for understanding, intimacy, and connection with the world around them, but the layers of illusion and faulty narrative in their minds keep them distant from each other and trapped in their unconscious programming. For me, it took identifying the particular systems of thought in each story to make it come alive. Whether it was the cultural disconnect between an elderly immigrant and her Americanized family members in “Virgin of the Parkway” or the Valium-numbed anxiety and restlessness of a recently divorced woman in “Layover”, I found myself most engaged with these stories when I could find and understand their most pressing emotional dissonance.
A few of Ott’s main characters are so far gone in the lies they tell themselves – the meth addict poet, the teenage barfly, and, curiously enough, the guy who ekes out a living as a costumed superhero on Hollywood Boulevard – and are so off-putting in their psychological wounds that empathy may fail to emerge at all. However, this doesn’t mean the stories have failed; Martin Ott isn’t in this to create uplifting tales of heroism. Instead his literary interrogations cut to the core, probing the depths of some rather difficult, dire people, searching for what’s real beneath the illusory personas and existential crises they present to the world. And it’s not always pretty.
| | |
Andrea Gregovich is a writer and literary translator living in Anchorage, Alaska.