Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Book Review: Down to a Sunless Sea by Mathia B. Freese

Down to a Sunless Sea is a small book that packs one heck of a punch. You'd think a book of a minuscule 134 pages would be severely lacking in detail, but Freese's style never waivers and never fails. Down to a Sunless Sea is a short story collection following a variety of characters who have been broken for one reason or another. Each of the stories is unique from the characters down to the writing style. I should mention that I do not consider myself much of a reader of literary fiction. While I have certainly encountered a fair share of literary fiction--being in college does that to you--I generally do not consider myself much of a fan. My main problem with literary fiction is that it tends to wonder or be plot-less, which is very much present within Down to a Sunless Sea. Most of the stories do not have discernible plots and many of them do seem to wander almost like stream of consciousness (without the written style). Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn't, and I would venture to say that my opinions on the individual stories of this slim volume should be held accountable to personal taste and not to any sort of absolutist opinion. Freese's collection beings with the title story Down to a Sunless Sea, followed by I'll Make It, I think and The Chatham Bear. The first two were written well, but I found them somewhat long-winded and without any clear point; the latter I thought was more interesting, though the ending left something to be desired. After these three stories, Freese seems to come into his own with each added character, in my opinion. I felt better about the latter bulk of the book than the initial pages. It should be noted that none of the stories within Freese's collection are poorly written: Freese has a strong and clearly defined authorial voice and the words seem to drip off the page rather than fall flat. Personal favorites include Herbie, which reminded me somewhat of Gunter Grass; Alabaster, which had a slight magical flavor to it and drew me in more than any other story in the book; Little Errands, an accurate story of last minute obsessions (Did you forget to turn off the oven?); Arnold Schwarzenegger's Father Was a Nazi, for reasons that have little to do with the title and more to do with how strangely realistic and yet bizarrely comical the actual story was; and Echo, which beautifully portrayed the illogical breaks in friendships and how the main character deals with and contemplates it. The only story I actually disliked was Nicholas. The problem with Nicholas was that the author attempted to recreate the character's slang in the exposition, but ended up creating a story that was mostly unreadable. I appreciate the use of slang in any novel (Clockwork Orange, for example), but Freese used the exposition to show the character's ignorance of the English language by portraying the misuse of words and misspellings within the exposition itself. My honest opinion about slang is that one should only use actual alternate pronunciations, rather than misspellings and internal misuses of words. Overall, I can say that I did enjoy Freese's work. While not all of the stories were to my liking, those that were kept me interested (plus, I finished the book, which is always good). The biggest flaw in this work happens to be due to my own neutral position on literary fiction. I suspect if you are a literary person, this collection will be right up your alley, but if you exclusively read speculative fiction, you may find this collection somewhat difficult. There are elements of magical realism, but on the whole Down to a Sunless Sea is a literary endeavor and deserves recognition as such. You can find Mathias B. Freese on his website. He is also the author of The i Tetralogy.


Trish said...

Glad to hear that overall you liked this one. I'm about a third of the way through and really questioning if I want to continue (of course I will, but I have reservations). I sometimes struggle with short stories because they leave me wanting more or they feel plot-less, as you mention this volume does. I think it's some unwritten rule that short stories need to be complex and strange. :P

mathias b. freese said...

a omment on a comment, exegesis if you will. trish poses some interesting ideas that i do come across; i learned how to write by working on short stories, viewing them as prose poems. as to plot, many of my stories are character driven which is perfectly legitimate; some like "Mortise and Tenon" and "Herbie" have plots. Some writers can combine both -- geniuses, of course. However, in this country we have a remarkable tradition from Poe on for the construction of short stories.i think we need to get out the box about plot-lines in this cyber age; Donald Barthelme comes to mind. as a mere mortal writer i work on the truth, always the truth, and i will do anything to get to that; notice that the styles in my short work are adapted to the story -- "Juan Peron's Hands," is experimental, "Alabaster" is not. So, there are no rules; everything goes in a short story -- however, some of us like sushi, some of us do not. Trish -- finish the book and then let me hear from you.
Kind regards,