This is How You Die: Stories of the Inscrutable, Infallible, Inescapable Machine of Death, Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo and David Malki, editors, 492 pgs,Grand Central Publishing, www.hachettebookgroup.com, $20.00.
What would happen if there was a machine that told you exactly how you were going to die and did so with a sense of uncomfortable vagueness and twisted irony?
This is the question posed to the contributors of this second short story collection featuring The Machine of Death—a conceit that first appeared as a premise in editor Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics and now has a literary life of its own.
Here’s how it works: you give the machine your change and a little blood, and it spits out your eventual cause of death. No dates, no details, just the cause — each story deals with the fallout of either the cause itself, or the existence of the machine at all.
With titles like “Execution by Beheading,” “Blunt Force Trauma Delivered by Spouse” and “Natural Causes,” there’s a demise for everyone. Many readers will probably assume they will be reading about the circumstances that lead to these causes, but the magic of this collection lies in the unexpected twists and turns that really do mess with expectations. Let’s just say, the titles aren’t necessarily the cause of death in every story, but they do feature prominently somehow. You don’t have to have a morbid fascination with death to enjoy this collection either. The wide variety of contributions are sad, poignant, compelling and darkly funny.
If that weren’t enough of a reason to pick this title up, the collection also mixes mediums. Interspersed among the text are comics and illustrations that tackle the morbid theme with equal verve. Favourites include a strip about a man relieved to know he will die of old age, only to die in a drive-by committed by a senior citizen. One story, “Meat Eater” is an entire illustrated children’s book, issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to get America’s children used to knowing how they will die.
On second thought, maybe a morbid fascination helps. (Aaron Broverman)