It is not often that I pick up a book of short stories with a song in my heart because the genre is just so damn difficult to get right – and when a writer succeeds he then has to stand against the greats such as H.P. Lovecraft, Saki, Angela Carter, Roald Dahl. Why do I mention these names? Because Sean Manseau, the author of You Are Not A Planet could easily line up against them.
Bijoux grotesques flank classic modern Gothic and stripped fairytale prose to reveal a universe not content to exist, but to thrive with crafted language and huge wordplay, wild descriptive narrative and stripped down bare sex, death, violence and nihilism.
The opener, “Who Laughs Last”, a premise so bizarre and so random that you would think it would never gel into a believable narrative, but instead of failing it reaches so far into the author’s imagination I felt violated by horrific storytelling and descriptions of magic and bodily fluids, demonic faces and torture, torn from the sweet frame of a letter to a housewife in which the narrative opens – stark betrayal of the deep hole Manseau pitches us into a few lines later.
It is wonderous. I read the book in two sittings, late at night, and found each tale so compelling and so diverse from the one before. I was ripped from one beautifully ugly scene to the next, each time a small relief to arrive at a new, normal beginning and by the closing sentence crawling with the sheer hell of it all.
I don’t want to tell you anything about any of the stories because it would spoil the Chekov’s gun effect of each plot, but the eponymous tale “You Are Not A Planet” is an epic space opera pared down to fat guy meets girl, jock best friend intervenes and then blown apart with Manseau’s fabulous brain.
Some stories are only a page or so, such as the fragile “My Favourite Picture” are painted like miniatures in type so that the reader peeks, in a few words, through a keyhole of some massive, unusual event just taken place.
Others relate to each other, characters are like a Michael Moorcock tale: the favourite for me, “We Are Spacelord!” involves a gay supergod from space searching for his lost love, even though he is 40 something feet tall wearing antlers and a purple kimono, resonates with overtones of the Jerry Cornelius multiverse novels: a change of outer shell, a dive through different star systems.
“You Got Old, Too Bad” is a modern set piece, almost a fable, in which an ex-teen TV star, now a husband entering middle age comes unstuck when he flirts with the idea of cheating with a fan. Initially set in Starbucks, this tale doesn’t hide the unromantic reality of our everyday lives, making the ghastly outcome even more nightmarish.
The style in which this book is written is highly unusual and maybe even peerless: I had a feeling the voice was, although reminiscent of certain writers, not exactly like anything I have read before, and certainly I get the impression I now could pick out a Manseau from a crowd due to the incredulous and off kilter beats of his craft mixed with sound and vast knowledge of lexicography; used not to impress but to enrich, creating such believable landscapes that you will wonder the next day if you dreamed the residue, or if it was in fact a distant, terrible memory.
There is really nothing bad to say here: Maybe that the book could be even longer, but then perhaps I always feel like that with a great short story anthology. A raw talent.
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About Cate Baum
Cate Baum is a filmmaker and writer of self-published book “The Bull and The Ban” (under the name Tosko) and contributed to "Ole!", a book about 21st Century attitudes to bullfighting with Ernest Hemingway's grandson John and New York Times writer Edward Lewine. She is also editor and co-founder of Filmmaking Review, the sister site to Self-Publishing Review. She is married to SPR founder Henry Baum and lives in LA.