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Review: Forensic Songs by Mike McCormack

Book Summary

"A prisoner is drawn from his cell in the middle of the night to play a video game; two rural guards ponder the security threat posed by the only man in Ireland not to have written his memoirs; a child tries to thwart his destiny as a serial killer; a couple has a strange, spiraling argument while watching an American cop show. In twelve stories of menace, ingenuity and formal precision, McCormack charts new connections between Ireland, the world of globally interconnected information, and the darkness inside us all." 


The authors of short story collections face many challenges foreign to writers of lengthy novels. They must pack the emotional depth and complexity of each stories' own unique cast of narrators and passing personas into only a few pages. They must make the few, often mundane, incidents hold the meaning of a much grander scale. And finally, they must try to make a cohesive whole, a collection, out of these individually complete fragments. So whenever I curl up with a book of short stories, I open the cover with a great appreciation for the degree of skill and effort that went into its creation.

Mike McCormack's Forensic Tales, true to the implications of its title, smolders with all the undiscovered things beneath the surface of the story, the character's dialogue is simmering with the tension of unexplained, pre-existing relationships, and the reader slips into the role of investigator. Thrown into the middle of often surreal situations, I found myself constantly attempting to reconstruct scenes that I was not privy to and trying to guess at the intentions of people I did not know. As a reader used to automatically and easily inhabiting the minds of a vast array of characters, I found this sort of disorientation challenging and interesting. 

There's no question that Forensic Tales is full of well-crafted stories. There are so many piercingly beautiful sentences and my copy is now full of underlined passages. However, while impressively ambitious in scope and subject matter, these stories often fell short of any true personal connection and its ideas and speculative scenarios rang hollow in their execution. In one of his most interesting stories, "There Is a Game Out There," a falsely condemned prisoner is asked to use his experiences to evaluate a video game. As the exchange between the prisoner and the corporate negotiator escalates, the narrator reflects that "The whole encounter feels like some intricate construct dropped from a higher, more abstract realm." That's a pretty accurate summary of how I felt about most of the stories- they were intricate and well-constructed, but they felt so strange and abstract that I never forgot for a second that I was reading a story. I was never able to lose myself in it. 

So if you're looking for a nice beach read, the type of book that you just can't put down, this is probably not the book for you. But if you're looking for thought-provoking, philosophical writing that you can digest in small doses, it's definitely worth checking out. 

Reviewed by Miranda Wojciechowski

Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 7/8/2014

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