Book Review : Alex Behr - Planet Grim (2017)
Pre-Order PLANET GRIM here (Released on 10/12/2017)
I want a dog. I'd name him Fish. I want something to love.
Planet Grim is unfortunately not a movie about an exoplanet inhabited by black metal aliens. It's the debut short story collection of Alex Behr, who I've never heard about before reading her book. I went into it blind since it was the last book in a series I owed for review, which turned out to be a great decision. I've read so many terrible debut short story collections since starting this site, I would've went in with prejudice. The stories of Alex Behr didn't exactly blow me away either, but their quiet rhythm and fierce intimacy kind of won me over after a while. It's tough to make an opinion from collected short stories, but Planet Grim was a pleasant throwback to the glory days of American minimalism.
So, the writing of Alex Behr has been compared to Miranda July and Mary Gaitskill, yet the name I kept thinking about when reading Planet Grim is John Cheever. Behr's suburbs are a tad more belligerent and unstable than Cheever's but they share this fascination for the outskirts of normality. My favorite story in Planet Grim was perhaps The Garden, which is about the memory of a fire and warped reality of trauma. It's a beautiful story about the most surreal moment in a normal person's life and muted aftermath. The Garden is disarming in its simplicity, yet crackling with underlying tension and things left unsaid. These are traits common to John Cheever and Raymond Carver's writing. Alex Behr is not a copycat or anything, but she integrated minimalism to her style in a compelling way.
Bobby was the first of many guys who found me pathetic, who was me as a project.
I didn't think of him for years, because he moved away - his new stepdad was in the Air Force and got stationed in Mountain Home, Idaho. He sent me a letter, though. He sent me a bunch, which got progressively stranger, even though his spelling improved. He told me he wanted to take out my eyes, which are green, and put them in a jar by his bed. He meant it as a compliment.
Other stories from Planet Grim I particularly enjoyed were the playful and symbolic White Pants, the raw and confrontational This is Not a Love Story, the gorgeously understated The Tenant and the fragmented and experimental Angel Dust. It's quite an eclectic group of stories that work well together because of several factors: the exploration of heartbreak, trauma, the underside of adulthood and the strong minimalist aesthetic that makes it seems like it's all happening to a gang of friends or a people living in the same neighborhood. Not all the stories works within this pattern. There are some clumsier, more debut-short-story-collection-ish elements to Planet Grim. Some of the fragmented stories among others don't work as well and come off as throw-ins. It's to be expected in collections. Planet Grim almost completely avoids it, but not quite.
I don't know why Planet Grim is titled Planet Grim. What I've learned reading it is that Alex Behr has a strong and cohesive vision. She has a world that is entirely her's, which is not given to many debut authors. She is obviously inspired by many iconic names such as Gaitskill and Cheever, but the worldview she introduces in Planet Grim is entirely hers. Behr has a good command of the short form, but given her understated style I'm thinking she'll do much better when given two hundred pages to explore the inner lives or her characters. I liked Planet Grim a lot, but I believe Alex Behr will exploit her full potential when she'll write a novel. I know you probably don't know her from Adam, but it's time to jump into the bandwagon before it's cool. Alex Behr has intriguing potential. She's a name I'll definitely keep an eye on for now.