Book Review : Joshua Chaplinsky - Whispers in the Ear of a Dreaming Ape (2019)
Joshua Chaplinsky is best known for Kanye West: Reanimator, a 120 pages-long mashup I’ve never actually read. If you’ve read short story anthologies in the last three or four years (all sixteen of you), you might remember his name because he’s participated to several and remained constantly interesting. That’s why I’m breaking my “no debut short story collection” rule today, to talk about the upcoming Whispers in the Ear of a Dreaming Ape. Chaplinsky doesn’t bat 1.000, but he’s a craftsman who truly enjoys the inherent weirdness and unpredictability of the form.
My favorite story in Whispers in the Ear of a Dreaming Ape is The Black Hole. It’s probably the best short story I’ve read all year. The titular black hole is a bar that slows down time. There’s also a singularity forming inside and all the patrons are gravitating towards it like dying celestial objects, while their family is stuck on a different timeline outside. The Black Hole is powerful because it’s original, straightforward and not preachy. The cosmic metaphor illustrates the powerlessness of an alcoholic with an empathy and a clarity of purpose that is second to none.
Alcoholism is usually romanticized or portrayed to be a pathetic affliction, so an alternative take is as refreshing as it is welcome.
Two other stories I liked a lot were The Hand of God and The Whole Infernal Machine. The former is a religious fevered dream where the protagonist’s quest for meaning is continuously thwarted by personal, idiosyncratic views on religion and the latter is a dystopian coming-of-age where the youthful narrator uses official, adult-like language to tell his story. He uses expressions like “The Therapist”, “ The Parental Unit” and “analog diary”. I thought this was particularly clever and moving, because language has become such a battle field on the internet, in 2019. Neologisms and 100$ words have become a validating practice in online debates and this story illustrates how they can sometimes be a tragedy.
I couldn’t really tell you what genre Joshua Chaplinsky’s actually writing. He’s like a drive-thru Brian Evenson with the inherent weirdness and the looping narratives, but without the insular economy of language. A story like Twice Amputated Foot is a good example. Dramatically speaking, it deprives you of a conventional beginning and ending. It reads like a very entertaining medico-legal anecdote and draws its power from its symbolism (the foot being a stand-in for the family’s dysfunction) and not from any powerful revelation at the end.
That’s probably the best thing about Chaplinsky’s fiction. It forces you to be an active audience and seek meaning instead of being spoon-fed everything. It’s uncomfortable in the best possible way.
Of course, these were the standout stories. But when Joshua Chaplinsky isn’t memorable, he doesn’t exactly stink. Some of the stories I haven’t named are enjoyable, but lack the conceptual spark and makes you go “OOOOUH” from the first page, like it has in The Black Hole or The Whole Infernal Machine. Chaplinsky is above average, but what separates him from greatness is a thematic obsession. A “thing” that is properly his. He’s original, technically sound, but it felt like a writer looking for his voice in a couple stories here. But he’s extremely close to finding it.
Anyway, I enjoyed Whispers in the Ear of a Dreaming Ape quite a lot. It has some of the best and most original short stories I’ve read all year. It’s short, fun and it’s coming out on October 15, which makes it a solid choice for Halloween. Get on it.