December 14, 2018KR Reviews

On Warnings from the Future by Ethan Chatagnier

Cincinnati, OH: Acre Books, 2018. 152 pages. $17.00.

Several of the stories in Ethan Chatagnier’s collection of short stories Warnings from the Future are interested in creators, in how artists across a variety of media contend with their more famous precursors. “Every Face in the Crowd” and “The Unplayable Études,” in particular, are stories that chart new lineages of influence-anxiety. In the former, a student artist carves elaborate pumpkins for wealthy Boston clients while aspiring to produce paintings that will be admired by his mentor, Professor Wei, and respond to the work of a fictional artist named Evan Durant. The latter story, the most stunning and technically complex in the entire collection, involves a complex dialogic interplay of nested creations. The first is a real set of études by the twentieth-century Hungarian composer György Ligeti; the second is a set of études by a fictional composer, Baird’s Tantalus Études; and the third is a pianist’s attempts to conquer Baird’s virtuosic pieces and perform them at a recital as a way of coping with the grief over her brother’s death.

Divided into titled vignettes, “The Unplayable Études” features an extremely fractured linearity. Readers don’t even know that the “now” of the story is during the piano recital until over halfway through the story. As a pianist, I’m very familiar with the ways that, instead of simply running a piece of music over and over, good practice habits dictate inflicting all manner of defamiliarizing techniques upon the score. We isolate short passages, we play hands-alone, we change the tempo, and we group notes into different rhythmic permutations—all in an attempt to more perfectly learn the piece through disrupting the habituation that sets in. I’m also familiar with the ways that the mind’s already chaotic synaptic movement is further exacerbated by performance settings. The achievement of “The Unplayable Études” is its ability to refract and derange narrative through these two skewing factors.

The story’s contribution to the tonality/atonality debate thus extends the concept of musical tonality to the aspects of literary short stories that create a feeling of stability: plot, characterization, conflict, setting. The story wallows in the flux between the literary tonal and atonal, a fluidity that is comparable to Baird’s approach to tonality in the described études. The difficulty of the études is paralleled throughout the story with a variety of impossibilities, for example, the inability to fully know a loved one, to perfectly grieve their passing. The technical impossibility that this story confronts is one of literature’s most famous limitations: simultaneity. Whereas music depends upon the verticality of harmony and polyphony, we can of course only read one word at a time. In “The Unplayable Études,” Chatagnier takes Flaubert’s method of a simultaneity achieved via retrospective reconstruction from the alternation of parts, and drastically increases the technique’s complexity through disjointed linearity, non sequitur, and lines from the story that return collaged, or like leitmotifs. The final section is composed largely of prior moments from the story, acting to bridge the technical and affective impossibilities: “How can opposite things exist at once, even in memory? Grief and persistence. Retreat and embrace. Music and silence.” Overall, the story works to expose the simplicity of the binaries through which we view so much of life and art, and to expose them as inadequate and artificial.

The title of the collection is a line in the story “As Long as the Laughter,” and refers to a middle-aged comedian’s deprecatory depiction of his own body to a much younger one-night-stand; however, several of the stories resonate with the title by evince prophetic qualities in ecological and political terms. While the stories expose systems of terrifying power in familiar settings—cops, corporations, dogmas, and demagogues—unexpected complexities and inverted dynamics continually crop up to distance the stories from didacticism or overfamiliarity. “Miracle Fruit,” for example, takes place in a dystopian near-future in which our overpopulated species is relegated to primarily sustaining ourselves on corn and soy products. The protagonist, Dr. Schuyler, is a food scientist employed by an agricultural conglomerate responsible for buying up the world’s last seed bank. Dr. Schuyler is humanized, however, through his care for his aging mother and his cooperation with a journalist, and even the corporation’s motivations are ennobled by the acknowledgement that the world perhaps requires its services in order to survive. (The story forces us to consider, for example, the question, “What happens when the food wars migrate to countries with nuclear arsenals?”) Instead of providing complication for the sake of complication, the story’s depth functions to overturn—in its final stunning lines—an allegory that, despite its absurdity, provides one of our most prevalent frameworks by which to make sense of widespread calamity. As our narrator baldly faces both his role and the limits of his role in the corporation’s eventual destruction of the food bank, he sees his life as a revision of the story of Noah and his ark: “[The ark] floated on the water a while, high above the obliterated world. Then, after a time, whether because God willed it, or because he didn’t care enough to stop it . . . the ark caught fire. The ark sank.”

Just when you might think you’re full-up on powerful stories, you come to “Dentists,” the final story in the collection—the shortest, the most urgent, the most narratively simple, the most ethically complex. As a literary scene, we’re likewise full-up on stories of liberal kids trying to deal with their conservative parents’ complicity with race-based injustice. The real horror ensues when “Dentists” inverts these characterizations into a new normal, telling the story of a Muslim family forced to move out of a subdivision in the middle of the night to a “Protection Villa” through the eyes of a neighbor who, while not outwardly horrible, has taken no stand against the escalation of hate crimes and the executive order they catalyzed. Living with the young man are his aging parents. His father, described as “The Liberal in Defeat,” tells his son about the rooms of shoes during the Holocaust in an attempt to waken him to empathy. The real tragedy of their side of the story, at least, is that father and son are more similar than they think. “I actually did share a lot of my dad’s ideas,” the young man considers, “and possibly would have shared them more forcefully had I not associated them with him. He had been raised under a peaceful sign, I thought, and had never developed the fortitude necessary for dark times.” The father fails to be as liberal with his son as he is with his neighbors, too quick to group him with those who perpetrate legitimate genocide and refusing to concede any middle ground that might have welcomed his son closer to his side. It shows how easily these divisions can form in families, where demanding the best so often leads us to expect the worst. Like “The Unplayable Études,” this story proves how the troubling of easy binary divisions has real life importance beyond mere postmodern aesthetic mischief.

Joe Sacksteder
Joe Sacksteder’s story collection, Make/Shift (Sarabande Books), and debut novel, Driftless Quintet (Schaffner Press), are forthcoming in 2019. His album of Werner Herzog audio collages is available from Punctum Books. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Utah, where he's managing editor of Quarterly West. Recent publications include Salt Hill, Ninth Letter, Denver Quarterly, and The Rumpus.