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Book Review: The Life of Polycrates

The Life of Polycrates & Other Stories for Antiquated Children

by Brendan Connell

Chomu Press, 2011

In one of the blurbs on the back of Brendan Connell’s new short story collection The Life of Polycrates, someone using the stripper stage-name “Justin Isis” proclaims: “With the yellow flag of Neo-Decadence lofted high, Connell exhumes the corpse of Mother Image and heaves it rank and rotting onto the tidy flowerbed of realist fiction.” Sensible readers seeing such a comment will have two reactions: first, you can’t exhume a corpse with a flag, and second, if “Justin Isis” is right, Connell’s book probably stinks.

It turns out this would be guilt by association, at least partially: The Life of Polycrates doesn’t stink. It’s yet another spawn of the McSweeney’s school of hyper-precious logorrheac stupidity, which means it tries hard to stink: synonyms are piled on top of synonyms Jenga-style, invention is very often supplanted by mere inventory (if a garden is mentioned, everything that ever has or ever could grow in it will be listed; if a library is mentioned, its card catalogs are remorselessly enumerated); irrelevancies are chased with kitten-like distraction. These sub-species deformities completely deface some of the stories in this volume (“Slug,” for instance, is lost to smirking) but not all of them, not completely. “Collapsing Claude” features some bracing misogyny, nicely turned; “The Life of Captain Gareth Caernarvon,” in many ways the highlight of this collection, is a very assured evocation of evil, and the deft little parable “The Dancing Billionaire” shows to good effect Connell’s loose-jointed prose line:

Denny waited in the library of the great house, one leg draped over the next, a French cigarette hanging from his lax fingers. He had not been invited to lunch, or dinner, or an evening party. He had not been invited at all and had no expectations of receiving exotic nourishment from Pellington’s kitchen. He was there solely for Allen – for his supposed benefit.

For Denny to be concerned with anyone but Denny, the situation must have been grave.

This is the kind of care with the language that will get Connell dirty looks from his fellow David Foster Wallace acolytes; no matter how frantically he fills his stories with pointless footnotes, meandering minutiae, and childish punctuation-games, his penchant for unpretentious storytelling keeps asserting itself. It must be very embarrassing for him, at acolyte meetings (“Meaningful character development? Dude, what were you thinking?”). Nevertheless, The Life of Polycrates is clearly the work of a good writer clogged to his eyeballs in bad habits. A summer spent reading the early novels of Henry James might do wonders.