Marshall Moore’s short story collection The Infernal Republic is darkly comic, at times downright disturbing, yet in some ways also strangely endearing. Moore’s stories feature characters who, for some reason or other, are alienated from their community, and therefore voice desires that we may censor ourselves from even contemplating. Yet at the root of even the most twisted desires is usually the almost desperate need to connect. Moore’s stories are intense and, when he resists the urge to throw in a surprise twist at the end and just allows the situation to play itself out, his stories are powerful.
Take for example “The Infinite Monkey Theorem,” which attracted me to this collection in the first place. Yahweh and Lucifer have placed bets on the idea that ten thousand monkeys with typewriters will, given an infinite amount of time, be able to re-create the complete works of Shakespeare. The story’s protagonist is Beëlphazoar, a demon tasked with supervising the monkeys and the team of demon guards. I love the concept — it’s absolutely ludicrous! — and Moore amps up the absurdity throughout. For the few thousand years, Beëlphazoar is so bored by his job that he teaches himself Mandarin, then Cantonese and other Chinese dialects. The demons get so desperate they beg Beëlphazoar to count “Some1” and “saxifrage” as words. “This isn’t Scrabble,” Beëlphazoar argues, but even he is soon desperate enough to consider cheating. As his fellow demon Nabob points out, “Boredom is death when you can’t die.”
The story itself kept me laughing throughout, but beneath the humour is the utter despair of all these demons stuck with a thankless, ultimately pointless job for all eternity. If you’re fortunate enough to have never felt that way about your job, watch Office Space. Beyond that is the relationship between Yahweh and Lucifer. Beëlphazoar describes the rift between Yahweh and Lucifer as a “vicious divorce,” and I was struck at the depth of emotion suggested by that term — one deity the spurned party, longing to rekindle the relationship, and the other unwilling to take him back. So when one party looks “crestfallen” at the outcome of the bet and Beëlphazoar suddenly understands what was at stake, I just love all the emotion seething just beneath the lines.
Much darker and angrier than “Infinite Monkey” is “Town of Thorns,” possibly my favourite in the collection. The story is almost painful to read — Michael was the victim of a hate crime and deals with the experience by getting tattoos, which alienates his partner Wade. “The heartbreaks, like the gods, are in the details,” Wade thinks. Michael has changed so much of his physical appearance that the only thing that remains unchanged are his sexual organs. “Why are you looking at my dick like that?” Michael asks, and Wade thinks but is unable to say aloud, “Because I miss the guy it’s attached to.” Just as Michael is having difficulty dealing with the violence to which he’d been subjected (which the cops claim is a matter of bad luck rather than gay-bashing), so is Wade unable to break through the barriers Michael has put up. Michael’s hate, fuelled by pain, is almost palpable, as is Wade’s love, both his desire and his inability to help Michael move on from the experience. We want Wade and Michael to re-connect, to be as happy as they were before the crime, yet we also feel Wade’s helplessness, that maybe things have just changed too much or, worse, maybe Wade had never really known Michael at all. I love the push and pull within this story, the pushing away and the clutching on. This is probably Moore’s most serious story in the collection and, for me, the most powerful.
I also liked the story “Flesh, Blood and Some of the Parts,” about a suicidal teen in a world where children were literally indestructible. How can one kill himself if doctors can easily remove one’s arms? It’s a twisted concept, yet also thought-provoking: how far would you go to prevent someone from taking his own life? Another story has a couple of strangers bonding over a man about to jump off a ledge, while still another has the narrator running over the man he loves and wanting to make love to his injured victim. Both stories very much twisted, and the narrator of the latter story actually psychotic. Yet Moore’s writing is compelling, and while I may not sympathize with the characters, I certainly perceive their obsessive need to connect. I also loved “Still Life with Pterodactyls,” about a man who has the power to make people disappear, but is unable to control it. He is doomed to loneliness, and I love how this is downplayed by Moore’s matter-of-fact recitation of disappearances.
Some of Moore’s shorter stories — about a condo literally ejected from its building or a woman who recruits beautiful young women for supernatural beings — just fell flat for me. They felt gimmicky, and I was left at the end wondering, so what? “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” inspired by the Damien Hirst piece of the same name had potential, but also left me with the “so what?” feeling at the end. “215,” about a house that has become self-aware and whose owners want to convert it to an apartment complex, had an interesting horror-story approach but was a bit heavy-handed with the existentialism.
Infernal Republic is an intense short story collection. Some of the works try a bit too hard to be funny or to have a surprise twist, but many others delve deep into the darkness of human desire. The stories I enjoyed in the collection are disturbing and, more importantly, compelling. The experience of reading this collection is much like the cover image suggests — it’s a wild, unpredictable ride, and like Moore’s characters, you dive deep, looking for something to break your fall.