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Regular readers know that I am a particular fan of well-done absurdist and surrealist literature, but that I'm not the biggest fan of bound story collections; although make no mistake, I'm a fan of short stories in general, just that I prefer reading them in their natural environment, as standalone pieces within the pages of magazines, literary journals and blogs. And hence do I always have a dilemma on my hands whenever coming across a well-done collection of absurdist or surrealist stories; because on the one hand, I want to recommend such books to you, especially since so many of them usually otherwise receive so little attention, but because of my limitations as a critic, I usually have little to actually say about them here besides, "Just go buy it." And that brings us to the oddly-titled Psychological Methods To Sell Should Be Destroyed, the latest publication by respected veteran "Weird" author Robert Freeman Wexler, put out as an exquisitely designed chapbook by Spilt Milk Press out in the middle of Iowa. Some of the stories in this strange little collection are fantastic, some not so much, which is why I always have a hard time writing unified long-form reviews of such books; but it's definitely worth your time, though, so...um, just go buy it!
A prolific author who has already published several novellas and full novels, Wexler brings a nuanced, mature voice to the sometimes scattershot world of absurdist literature; no matter what the quality of any particular story here, all of them are written with a confidence and mastery over language much needed within this genre in order to be truly great, a gravitas that sometimes eludes younger and more inexperienced Weird writers. Take for example what is easily the best story of the collection, "Tales of the Golden Legend;" how at first it seems like it's going to be a funny yet flippant piece of silliness -- the story of a man who discovers that he can hear the rational thoughts of various loaves of bread -- and how in a younger writer's hands, the story could've very well stayed that, and offered no more insights than the cliche-riddled ones found at the beginning (loaves of white bread are boring, Italian loaves are boisterous, etc). Wexler, though, takes the opportunity to push the story in a deeper and more serious direction, essentially exploring the idea of a paranormal hive-mind society among the loaves, and the kinds of bizarre religious beliefs such a "benign Borg" type situation might inspire; how in Wexler's take on the subject, all grains on the planet belong to the same aetheral collective consciousness, with their divine purpose in life being to feed and nourish others precisely through the violence of being eaten, able to rationally witness their own traumatic deaths and then gently returning to the all-knowing Collective Grain Mind of Infinite Wisdom and Peace Amen.
Yeah, pretty heady stuff for a story about talking bread; and that's why Psychological Methods is in general several steps in quality above most publications of this sort, whether it's spending its time musing on the magical properties of little old Asian women, or the secretly thrilling inner life of a browbeaten Soho gallery intern, or the surprisingly judgmental disembodied floating head that suddenly appears one day in the living room of a man grieving over a failed relationship. Like the best of this kind of literature, with most of these stories we end up feeling like they are in some deeper, more hidden way touching on what are probably some very personal and unique issues in the author's own life, that it is ultimately the real world inspiring these pieces but then twisted metaphorically into a shape we barely recognize when they finally get released. That's what's so great about absurdist and surrealist literature in my opinion; that just like the most cutting-edge of science-fiction as well, such stories can at their best tell us loads about the eternal human condition, in a way sometimes that realist fiction cannot, precisely through the dissonance of an outré storyline.
Of course, not every story in Psychological Methods is like this, which is what makes story collections so notoriously difficult for me to review analytically; "Valley of the Falling Clouds," for example, feels more like a literary exercise than a finished, polished piece, while "The Sidewalk Factory" was a little too absurdist even for my liberal tastes, effectively becoming the narrative equivalent of the old joke, "How many Surrealists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? A fish!" And that's what makes bound story collections often so spotty in my mind, is that the author in question rarely meant for these stories to be directly compared to each other when first writing them; such bound collections are in my opinion an imperfect option, a leftover from the days when it was difficult to disseminate such stories in their original forms, a notion rapidly outdating itself in this age of blogs and PDFs and print-on-demand.
That's why I always encourage people to patronize literary journals and magazines when in a mood for short fiction, and why I'm looking forward to the day when we're all running around with our cute little "iBooks," able to simply pay a dollar and download a short story directly from such places, carry it around just like that and not need bound collections in the first place. Until that day, though, we still have these collections to mollify us; and as far as that's concerned, fans of smart and textured absurdist and surrealist tales could do a whole lot worse than to pick up Psychological Methods, and to become a fan as I now am of Wexler and his work.
Out of 10: 8.3, or 9.3 for fans of absurdist and surrealist literature