On Tobias Carroll’s ‘Transitory’
Uncanny and whimsical, Carroll is cultivating an aesthetic all his own with his debut story collection.
Fiction | Stories
5.2" by 8"
Civil Coping Mechanisms
Brooklyn, New York
There’s a piece of flash in Transitory, Tobias Carroll’s debut story collection, that I can’t get out of my mind. Entitled “Party Able Model,” the story is only three pages long and about a man who goes to the art opening of an old friend he’s in love with, a friend he hasn’t seen in many years.
He said, “I think maybe I fell in love with you there and realized that it was a lost cause all at the same time.”
Still, his hand was shaking. The beer moved to his lips; he took a long drink. New lines in his forehead were born.
Anything she said right now, she knew, would feel false, both to herself and to him. But there was no way to convey this except with words.
The story is right smack in the middle of the collection and is the heart of the book, which is filled with unsettling pieces that border on the surreal, flirt with the supernatural, and play with the theme of lives in transit. But this particular story most unsettled me because it seemed the most heartfelt, the one that draws the most blood, the one that — in the key moment above — seemed least concerned with transit.
“Party Able Model” is told from the artist’s perspective. She is the love object — the three-dimensional work on the gallery walls of her old friend’s life — but it is she that, in the end, receives the epiphany in the form of inspiration for new work from his surprise appearance and confession.
In “Winter Montage, Hoboken Station,” the first story in the collection, Carroll also plays with the idea of missed connections between old friends. The main character meets a friend he hasn’t seen in a long time, and after a couple of drinks, the friend reveals that he’s in love with his brother’s girlfriend. When asked for advice, the main character punts, focusing on the growing differences between his friend and him rather than on their past shared experiences. He posits that because he’s an only child, he’s not qualified to give advice — an answer that disappoints his friend.
In other stories, Carroll brings the weird and whimsical in wonderful, unexpected ways. In “The Wenceslas Men,” a young man moving into a second-floor apartment shortly after Christmas begins to see shadows levitating outside his window, figures that he names The Wenceslas Men, a reference to the “Good King Wenceslas” Christmas carol, about a Bohemian king who braves harsh winter weather to give alms to peasants (thanks, Wikipedia). “The Independence Shipping Company” is about a nautical expedition that takes off around the waters of Maine, and the crew may or may not have witnessed a UFO. In all of the stories, there is an insistence on quiet climaxes. Carroll seems to be saying that many of life’s largest moments pass by barely noticed, barely registered — time itself in transit.
There’s no better example of time in transit than in the story, “Airport Hotel Ghost Tour.” In this passage, Carroll elongates this mere moment that his character Marco experiences so that it doesn’t just contain more time, but alternate and parallel lives.
The glass-walled chain bar got a second look as he went; still deserted, save the bartender. He wondered what might transpire if he walked in. Whole futures passed in that moment, infinite and minute Marco Hodges ebbing away. He could have struck up a friendship or a romance with the bartender; they could have become mortal enemies or secret allies. Possible friends and possible children and possible homes ceased in a blink of an eye.
Carroll’s stories are contemporary but have a Victorian feel to them, making many of his characters feel unmoored from time. Combined with his taste for the uncanny and whimsical, Carroll is cultivating his own quiet and unusual aesthetic that is both exciting and mysterious.