Spencer Gordon, 216 pgs, Coach House Books, chbooks.com, $18.95
The 10 stories in Spencer Gordon’s debut short fiction collection take their cues largely from the cult of celebrity: from the interior, self-satisfied monologue of the first 100% African-American Miss USA to the imagined pilgrimage of an emotionally lost Matthew McConaughey and a financially down-on-his-luck Leonard Cohen, reduced to promoting Subway sandwiches to make ends meet.
Through this lens of celebrity, Gordon explores notions of authenticity and identity, and how they have come to be defined by current social norms. The previously mentioned protagonists of “Operation Smile,” “Journey to the Centre of Something,” and “The Land of Plenty” exist with their names in lights, on movie posters, and on book covers. Meanwhile the stories “Jobbers,” “Wild and Blue and Empty,” and “Last Words” offer the flip side of this coin, featuring a fearful child who idolizes and mimics famous wrestlers, a young man revealing his sexuality via his blog and a would-be novelist reflecting on unrealized ambitions as cancer threatens to bring his life to a sudden and unceremonious end.
“This is Not an Ending” and the 3,000-word run-on sentence “Transcript: Appeal of the Sentence” are two of the most unconventional pieces in this collection, approaching the idea of celebrity from the most malignant of perspectives: media and obsession.
However, it’s the fifth story, “Frankie+Hilary+Romeo+Abigail+Helen: An Intermission,” that is at once the most thematically straightforward yet problematic in the book. Structured around the idea of six degrees of separation, it details the circumstances surrounding the rise of several young starlets, contrasting their stratospheric careers with the difficult, life-long struggles faced by Helen Keller. The comparison is appropriately unsettling, but shallow and lacking any sort of subtext.
Gordon’s writing is strong but pedantic, and his characters, while expertly detailed, fail to make the leap from the page and into reality, feeling more like extensions of the authorial voice and not personalities unto themselves. In Cosmo, commentary is king, but I am left wishing for stronger personalities and a more subtle and graceful hand.