This is not what’s supposed to happen. This is what’s supposed to happen: a writer gets an agent, who then sells the writer’s book to a publisher, who kindly publishes the book, and distributes it to bookshops, and attempts to get it reviewed in newspapers. Nick Parker either didn’t know this, didn’t care, or tried it and it didn’t work. Instead, he has self-published his book of short stories, which he is selling through his own Web site, and as a Kindle ebook. He sent me a copy in the post. Lots of people send me self-published books. The Exploding Boy and Other Tiny Tales is the first time an author has sent me a self-published book that’s actually any good.
There are, of course, precedents. Self-publishing and DIY authors include, famously, William Blake, Lord Byron, Proust, Shelley, Ezra Pound, Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf. But the world of self-publishing is mostly inhabited by cranks and hucksters (though Blake, Byron, Whitman and Woolf could probably all be described as cranks, and Pound was a crank and a huckster). Things may be changing with the new rash of high-profile self-published novelists (Brunonia Barry and Amanda Hocking to name but two), but recent success stories still tend to be one of three kinds: the self-fulfilling I Made a Million Selling Kindle Ebooks and So Can You! ebook; the self-help book touted round personally by a conference-suite speaker (Jack Canfield’s Chicken Soup for the Soul); and the new age/conspiracy/weirder-than-weird novel (James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy). On the ever-widening self-publishing scale that goes all the way from botanically dyed, hand-colored avant-garde pamphlet at one end to the mobile-device-friendly, app at the other, The Exploding Boy and Other Tiny Tales is most definitely at the avant-garde end.
The Exploding Boy and Other Tiny Tales
By Nick Parker
But not in a pretentious, poppycock way: what we get are 42 short, swift, crowd-pleasing stories. The great, odd American short story writer George Saunders has an essay, The Perfect Gerbil, in his book The Braindead Megaphone about the even greater, even odder American short story writer Donald Barthelme, which explains that part of the appeal of Barthelme’s work “involves the simple pleasure of watching someone be audacious.” Saunders claims that “the real work” of a story “is to give the reader a series of pleasure-bursts.”
The Exploding Boy is full of little pleasure-bursts. The first story, the exploding boy (all titles are in lower case, alas, one of the book’s more irritating mannerisms), begins: “We only call him the Exploding Boy now, of course; retrospectively.” Device safely planted, the second sentence goes off, as it must, like this: “For most of last year he was known only as Ticking Boy.”
“We are in need of a new type of fire,” another story begins, a statement that requires some sort of explanation. We are given first a list: “We admit that the fires that we already have are all perfectly good fires: the fires for burning logs for warmth; the fires for lighting cigarettes; the fires for burning books with.” And then an explanation: “We need a fire for the new digital age. A fire that is streamable, downloadable, scalable, printable, storable in hard drives, retrievable and searchable.” The story fragments from the history of pest control begins: “This is how we keep the rabbits under control. At night, when they are asleep in their hutches and holes, we creep out and ... whisper to them.”