The best short stories take you deep into a character or a situation, without all the set up and plotting that a novel usually entails. They have a certain intensity – the equivalent of eating a dark chocolate truffle, say, rather than a thick slice of frosted cake. Eric Puchner’s short stories in Last Day on Earth have this quality of intensity, and of delicious surprise: his characters, many of them very young, inhabit a world that is on the edge of being surreal, sometimes humorously so. This is the family, defamiliarized – in a world that slips in and out of fantasy.
A persistent theme in Puchner’s stories is how movies – particularly sci-fi movies – have become entwined with our perception of the world. Sometimes it’s a literal connection, sometimes it’s the metaphoric. On the literal end of the spectrum is “Beautiful Monsters,” a dystopian horror story set in a future in which children never grow old. They’ve been “perennialized” by the state and are encouraged to hunt down and kill any aging people they can find – though as in all Puchner’s stories, there’s a vestige of compassion and a familial instinct left that softens the cruelty of the new world. While thoroughly adult, “Beautiful Monsters” is preoccupied by some of the same themes as Louis Lowry’s The Giver and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. In this brave new world without parents, a survivor of the old ways recalls what mothers were like: “They’re wonderful....Though sometimes you hate them. You hate them for years and years.” One can imagine a less sentimental, more modern Peter Pan than Barrie’s feeling something like that as he yearned for Wendy on the island of Lost Boys.
Elsewhere, film references function as indications of the catastrophic way we’ve come to think: In “Brood X,” a boy meeting a new neighbor says of her, “She looked, I thought, like the sort of woman a movie monster might snatch from a crowd.” That’s a complicated and fearful way of saying she’s pretty. Alien, robot and zombie mothers are scattered throughout the collection, in what seems to be a conscious acknowledgement of one of childhood’s greatest anxieties: do we really know the person on whom so much of our happiness and security rests?
The melding of sci-fi and reality is most notable in “Mothership,” which may be the collection’s tour de force. Jess is a depressed, single woman just out of rehab who moves in with her sister’s young family while her sister’s husband is in the hospital with a brain tumor. “Typical, to be upstaged by a brain tumor,” Jess thinks. She is desperate to “win her sister back” but she feels so at odds with this new environment that she becomes, in her mind, alien, “trapped on earth.” Halloween brings her confusion to a climax. The streets of L.A. are phantasmagoric: “Some of the houses looked like they’d been decorated by set designers, which of course, they had.” Wearing an alien mask gives Jess the opportunity to impersonate her sister, and while in that guise, she commits an unpardonable act of deception. Yet Puchner grants Jess some redemption. She may never win her sister back, but she has something unexpectedly kind and protective - even maternal - to offer her niece.
Don’t get the impression that there are no fathers in Last Day on Earth. There are fathers here, though they generally less of a worry than mothers. Take the father in “Heavenland,” one of the funniest stories in the collection. Kevin is, at best, a reluctant father. Dumped by his ex, who’s had the baby despite his objections, he’s saddled with their infant son for a few hours. His narcissism is hilarious, and profound. “If she was meant to have a baby, then surely Kevin was meant to go to museums when he wanted to and savour the detours of his own mind and not feel terminally exhausted. He was meant to listen to music as loudly as he chose, songs that didn’t include the word ‘banana’ in them.” Kevin, infantile, is has no emotional connection his child. At a particularly low, though very amusing moment, Kevin uses the baby’s head as a table from which to snort cocaine. It takes the threat of death to force him into love with his child, but he gets there in the end.
Last Day on Earth, for all of its characters’ alienation, has a warm heart — rare moments of unmasked tenderness that make life on earth bearable. Puchner’s stories offer no saccharine reassurance about what the future might hold, but after reading this collection, you’ll feel convinced by his belief in the potential of change through love – even if you, like his characters, often feel yourself to be a stranger in a strange land.
Other books by Eric Puchner: