Is the Best Thing Ever
Harper Perennial, 2010
The characters in Justin Taylor’s first book of fiction, a collection of 16 short stories entitled Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, are plagued by the familiar maladies of modern America’s youth. While most of these stories don’t break new ground in terms of subject matter, they are often cringingly relatable and, in a few instances, shine with tenderness, humor, and genuine insight.
Taylor, who is 27 and has credits as an editor, poet, and nonfiction writer, is most effective when his young narrators are brutally honest with themselves and the reader. In “The New Life,” Brad, a highschooler, recounts his relationship with his onetime best friend Kenny. Brad’s jealousy of Ken’s new status as a cool kid is “a sensation so powerful it was indistinct from either hatred or lust” and it triggers a “formidable erection.” He has a crush both on Kenny and his slightly older sister Angela, a former Goth, now dating the school hunk, Zak Sargent, “who had grown into exactly the kind of cartoon character his name suggested.” The story is pitch-perfect on high school’s wandering fealties: “Zak Sargent had led the pogroms of childhood, and since me and Kenny were best friends again, I lived every day with the knowledge that I would have joined those raiding parties if they’d only been willing to include me.” In the end Brad and Dawn, Angela’s fat, zitty ex-girlfriend, resort to a black magic ritual to return Angela to their circle.
Taylor takes thematic risks in several stories. In “Jewels Flashing in the Night of Time,” an unnamed narrator grips Andrea’s neck during sex (she has a boyfriend, who’s not him), has a crush on Brendan and obsesses over the news of the sexual abuse committed against the detainees of Abu Ghraib. Gradually, the narrator’s confessional recounting of his sexual misadventures becomes laced with quotations from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which he checks out of the library, Georges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye (a novella detailing perverse sexual acts of an adolescent couple), which he knows by heart and likes to read out to Andrea during sex, and his raving about the atrocities at Abu Ghraib. With the juxtaposition of the literary texts, the Abu Ghraib reports, and ubiquitous meat imagery (the narrator is an employee at a deli), the story is an interesting meditation on the motives of Generation Y as representatives of the reigning civilization, obsession, and intersections between sex and violence, beauty and ugliness of the human flesh.
With its colloquial tone and easy recourse to triteness Taylor’s casual, talky minimalism wants to be your friend, wants to be understood. But his prose also offers moments of utter precision and surprise—a few dunks into the basket of the book’s overambitious title.
KSENIYA MELNIK is a writer and a student in the graduate writing program at NYU.