Online Edition: Summer 2003

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Super Flat Times

Matthew Derby

Little, Brown and Company ($13.95)

by Joel Turnipseed

Matt Derby is twisted. Then again, so is our world, if you take the time to look at it--and through the lenses of Derby's imagination, it takes on an eccentric quality as well. This collection of some ways-linked, some ways-not, stories are all of a theme: a grim, dystopic society constructed of pop-icon tropes and futuristic extensions of the 20th century's worst horrors that nevertheless finds within itself astonished moments of shimmering hilarity. Mostly, however, it's a grim world depicted in Super Flat Times, which begins with the killing of the men, strongest first, then the rest: "When the heavy ones were all accounted for, they took men who struggled, men who hid, men with sharp tongues, men with hair on their backs, men named Kevin. The men who did not resist, the men who were willing to die, were sent off to fight wars instead." So it goes, with a certain logic that wouldn't find itself totally outside the pale in certain advanced marketing studies or RAND strategic papers.

Like the art of Takashi Murakami (though Derby owes as much to the writer, Haruki), Derby has determined that the fantastic and terrible horror that inheres in our insatiable thirst for kitsch-pop and readily-available consumerism is interesting both as a medium for art and also as something begging to be flipped into disaster. Just as the old Japanese eccentric painters (from whom, along with anime masters like Kanada, Murakami took a lot of his inspiration) could take something as lovely as a plum tree and view it in such a way that it takes an ominous turn across the screens on which it's painted--rending, for example an ordinary Edo-period motif into a dark phantasm--so Derby, in "The Boyish Mulatto," turns our increasingly post-post work life into the scary absurdity it already is:

At the center my colleagues and I taught people different techniques of coaching food, getting the best performance out of a meal. This type of eating was called 'Eating,' and it involved an intricate set of stances that are illegal now. Our goal, stressed in the grueling two-hour instruction tape, was to teach people how to work in the table, the whole room. It was a lifestyle.

Still, for all its weirdness (and there's plenty), there's a tenderness in Super Flat Times that infuses the collection with hardy doses of well-wrought humanity. There's the orphaned boy, now raised by a surrogate robot father, who can relive the past with the Father Helmet--only to betray the mundane existence of his real father by imagining the fun he had with the robot dad instead. Similarly, in the final appeal of the book, the collection's narrator asks us to carry on the work of translating the horrors that we've long since forgotten how to put into words.

Derby's Super Flat Times are strange ones--but strange with the familiarity of our everyday, suffused with the tenderness that comes from being aware of just how fragile our lives are, and the dark foreboding that precedes the recognition of a vast, unrecoverable disaster. These stories crackle and grumble with a future that is already beside us, waiting for us to look out the corner of our eye to notice it.

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Summer 2003 Table of Contents