Celestial Inventories, Steve Rasnic Tem, 320 pgs, ChiZine Publications, www.chizinepub.com, $18.95
With more than 350 published stories to his name, multiple-award-winning author Steve Rasnic Tem has produced a reflective blend of surrealist and sometimes frightening tales in his latest book.
The twenty-two stories contained within Celestial Inventories deal primarily with the overarching themes of aging, abandonment, and changed circumstances and perceptions. The opening and closing pieces, “The World Recalled” and “Celestial Inventory”,
bookend the collection with inverse tales of life’s milestones remembered through eccentricities and everyday objects. Families are pulled through the thresher in “When We Moved On”, “Little Poucet”, and “The High Chair”, each examining the burdens and failures of parents and would-be parents. Meanwhile the protagonists of “In These Final Days of Sales”, “The Bereavement Photographer”, and “Dinosaur”, are forced to accept change and inescapable loss—of purpose, of kin, and of self.
“Origami Bird”, “The Mouse’s Bedtime Story”, “The Monster in the Field”, and “Giant Killers”, the shortest stories in this collection, have identifiably dark fairy tale aesthetics to their layers of abstraction, feeling like small, curious breaths between the larger, more complex narratives.
Tem is most effective as a writer when he focuses on the absurdity inherent in certain social situations: in “The Disease Artist”, a performer makes his living infecting himself with life-threatening illnesses and exhibiting himself as art to a clean, antiseptic world; “Invisible” showcases a couple overlooked by friends and family to such a degree that their loneliness causes them to disappear. Meanwhile, “Head Explosions” plays with the idea of sympathizing with terrorists’ unpopular thoughts marking individuals as social pariahs… by blowing up their heads and forcing them to carry on with life in full, horrible view of the world.
Though the stories “Chain Reaction”, “The Secret Flesh”, and “Last Dragon” failed for narrative reasons to connect with me, the writing in even the weakest stories in this book remains strong. Celestial Inventories is an impressive, confident collection. (Andrew Wilmot)