October 29, 2015

Book 52: Fortune Smiles

Fortune Smiles
Adam Johnson

First and foremost, a content warning: the story "Dark Meadow" centers on a pedophile and treats this character sympathetically; proceed with caution. While I believe that this story effectively accomplishes its goals, reading it is a profoundly disturbing experience, insofar as it plants the reader firmly in this character's mind. Johnson (and, indeed, his editor(s)) may have had good intentions when including this story in the collection, but it is unsavory and would have better been left out.

Otherwise, this is an interesting short story collection that operates primarily in a familiar mode: it consists mostly of "literary" fiction with a few hints of sci-fi-inspired intrigue that are always a little too ashamed to cross over directly into genre writing. This is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but Johnson seems too willing to go along with the traditional strictures of litfic rather than exploring the inventive elements that would otherwise lend this collection some desperately needed originality. Several stories simply fail to capitalize on the author's grand ideas, whether by coming into them with too little interest too late in the story ("Nirvana") or by failing to connect the fantastic elements effectively to the story's other themes ("Fortune Smiles"). Interestingly enough, the most effective stories are the realistically minded "Hurricanes Anonymous" and "George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine", both of which are grounded in strong, compelling characters who carry the narratives even when nothing much is actually happening to or around them; the latter story, especially, is a masterclass in engendering readers' sympathy for an unsavory character, offering as it does an exploration into the idea of the banality of evil without excessive moralizing or unaffected indifference. Overall, Fortune Smiles is full of excellent writing and grapples with several interesting themes, but fails to capitalize on its most intriguing ideas, settling instead for typical aimless litfic fare.

Grade: B-

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