Fiction | Short Stories
6” x 6” perfect-bound trade paperback
Review originally published on 3/26/15
Andrew Keating’s Participants is an interesting and quick collection of eight short stories averaging about ten pages each. Common threads among the stories are the work place, the day-to-day life, and the pursuit of happiness. While some of those themes may seem non-unique, the voice of these stories is far from generic. I tried to think of who the stories reminded me of, and most of the time, I came up blank. They stand alone as “Keating-like” stories.
The lead blurb for it on Amazon describes its characters, the participants, as always “willing to give it a go.” I found different characters and an entirely different message within these stories. To me the term ‘participants’ here is ironic, as often these characters were not participating at all, but were on the sidelines, not going with the common stream, but staying focused on protecting their own isolated routines. These characters were finding it hard to participate in the external world and, if given the choice, they might say, ‘nah, I’m good.’ This is opposite to giving anything a go.
The title story was about a man named James who makes a small living by participating in medical experiments. He gets paid to take part in sleep studies or other basic psychological tests. Here, he comes across Victoria, who is doing the same thing, and he is drawn into a friendly relationship with her. This did remind me a little of the unnamed narrator of Fight Club and his relationship with Marla, even down to her showing him new quirky ways of life. James doesn’t participate in much besides the minimum required to get paid. We aren’t sure of his era, but there is mention of him having been in a war. He mostly wants to avoid society:
Standing in line is never an enjoyable experience. Somebody always bumps into you, or tries to edge you forward by standing too close, and everyone is always anxious. (p. 16).
When Victoria is ready to increase the intimacy of the relationship, James defers. He goes his own way but eventually looks for her outside one of the experimental facilities. She’s gone, and it’s completely left open if that is a good or bad thing.
Two of the other stories work with this same kind of ambiguity. “Potential Energy” and “Ninth and Greene” both cover traumatic events in intentionally unclear ways that build a mystery to what is or isn’t happening to the protagonist. “Potential Energy” is about a difficult boss and ends in an explosion that leaves you unclear of the cause or if it even really happened. Was the potential energy, the imagination of the narrator? I’m not sure. “Ninth and Greene” worked the same way and seemed to bend time around the events of a car accident and a potential additional victim. The ambiguousness in both of these stories seems to be the space the narrators prefer to stay in, possibly as a strategy of grief? It’s yet another way to walk the line of true participation.
Three connected stories, “Mel Leopold the Brave,” “Accept/Decline,” and “Forced Vacation” have Mel Leopold as the common character and explore the theme of Mel being conflicted by the desire to break away from the malaise of day-to-day work and needing to preserve the safety of routine.
Three years working for the Culver City Gazette, Mel had never missed a day, never changed his routine. Same time in, same time out. Same mundane tasks, same lack of recognition for the highest level of productivity in the office. Not tomorrow. Tomorrow, he reasoned — standing naked in front of his bathroom mirror, toothbrush in hand — tomorrow he was going to change. It was time to break the cycle. Tomorrow he was going to be Mel Leopold the Brave, Mel Leopold the Irrational, Mel Leopold the Unpredictable. (p. 33)
That is the emotion that kicks off the first of three parts and an enjoyable series of events for Mel, including my favorite of the collection, “Forced Vacation,” which forces Mel out of his routine and into participating in a normal relationship with a waitress he meets while finally having to use some of his vacation time from the Culver City Gazette.
It seems to me that Mel Leopold is the kind of character Kurt Vonnegut would enjoy. Keating captures a similar humanist outlook as Vonnegut’s. He manages to explore the potential value and goodness of his characters while also highlighting their weaknesses and vulnerability.
The final two stories are the flash piece, “Three-Berry Pie,” which covers the most revolutionary act of the collection, and “Davis Field,” which baseball fans will enjoy. The latter, interestingly, is about a couple Leopolds, as well, but we aren’t sure of their relation to Mel.
The image I took away the most from the book came from “Forced Vacation,” where the hand-holding Mel and Liz end a walk. As he goes the other way for home, their hands stay together until that last moment they are just out of reach. There is always a part of life out of reach for these characters, and they have to decide if they will keep trying to get to it or if it is worth the risk of failure. The book shares that same balance, and readers who like to participate a little extra in a story like I do will enjoy it, while other readers might feel like something great has just slipped away.