» Book Review
Visiting Eight Little Universes
Quantum Convention, by Eric Schlich
University of North Texas Press, 2018
Paperback, 192 pages, $14.95
Winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction
By the time I reached the end of the first page of Eric Schlich’s Quantum Convention, I was engrossed in the world created in the eponymous opening story, where the protagonist, Colin, attended a “Quantum Convention” of his alternate selves from parallel timelines, in search of “Perfect Me,” or at least “Happy Me.” Then, once Colin headed home, “step[ping] through from the Marriott lobby to the Days Inn lobby in my home uni,” Schlich offered me seven more universes I wanted to step into and explore, from the revealing dreams of “Lucidity” to the set of The Wizard of Oz in “Not Nobody, Not Nohow.”
Schlich’s talents extend beyond cool ideas to clever prose and layered characterization. He moves deftly from humor to tragedy, even expertly riding the waves of tragicomedy, making his stories fun to read without coming off as shallow or glib. “Merlin Lives Next Door,” for example, begins with a vibrant and funny scene in which the wizard of the title “sneezes and flies into last Saturday when I was doing some landscaping” and the protagonist literally “yelled at him to get off my lawn.” With clever references to Arthurian legend—and other well-known wizards—“Merlin Lives Next Door” made me laugh a lot (pun possibly intended). But the story dips into pathos, as well, expressing the deep loneliness of an existence “unstuck from time” in which Merlin never stays in the same time period for more than nine months.
Schlich draws his characters with the same skill that shapes his prose, whether it’s the young girl wrestling with her faith in “Night Thieves” or the stifled one-eyed narrator in “Journal of a Cyclops.” Actually, the characterization I enjoyed most in “Journal of a Cyclops” wasn’t the narrator, Owen, but Darien, a boy whose attempts to befriend Owen offer the social contact that a housebound Owen desperately needs, but constantly hover on the edge of exploiting Owen’s unusual “birth gift” to impress other, cooler teenagers. Aware of this possibility, Owen struggles to take ownership of his atypical appearance, writing to his psychiatrist, “If I can survive this, I can survive anything.” Schlich gives Darien more complexity than the average middle-school bully, showing how Darien’s attempts to use Owen spring not from the standard Mean Girls attitude of a popular kid but from Darien’s own desire for the esteem of others.
Though most of Quantum Convention’s stories have modern settings—often, but not always, with fantastical elements—I would feel remiss if I failed to mention “Keeners,” the tale of orphan girls once paid to cry at funerals, not so much for the narrative of the keeners themselves but for the wonderful and, of course, tragic fairy tale of the banshee embedded within. In Schlich’s version, the banshee is a beautiful young woman whose rotted, tongueless mouth disgusts all her suitors. The banshee’s dying mother teaches her a sublimely beautiful song that must only be sung one night of the year, and complications ensue. Rather than spoil the ending with too much detail, let me say only that it involves a foolish king and a deaf gravedigger.
That said, Quantum Convention isn’t perfect. Schlich counts among the many writers who seem to struggle with endings, though he tackles them with more style and aplomb than most. While not every story in the book misses the mark at the end—“Lucidity,” for example, concludes right where it needs to—Schlich tends to err on the side of ending his stories too early rather than too late, potentially frustrating readers, as in “Lipless,” where I desperately wanted to see a final encounter between the married, bisexual protagonist and the straight man he’d loved since college, one that would give both the character Marcus and myself some closure. Sometimes Schlich leaves a little too much work for the reader to do at the end of the story, as in “Not Nobody, Not Nohow,” where despite the strong shared motif of The Wizard of Oz, I struggled to find the emotional parallels between the two protagonists: the actress reduced to a “crone” by her role of the Wicked Witch and a young boy humiliated by his classmates for dressing up as Dorothy. While Schlich offers me decent conclusions to either Margaret Hamilton’s storyline or the unnamed boy’s, they still feel like two separate stories; the ending’s attempts to tie them together fall short.
Despite this minor criticism, Quantum Convention remains absolutely worth the read. As Colin learns by the time he leaves his own quantum convention, none of us are perfect, either.