It’s hard to read Marcus Pactor’s Vs. Death Noises without thinking of J.G. Ballard. The crime-scene labeled portrayal of character in “The Archived Steve,” the incantation-based narrative in “Spell Compendium,” the number-tagged dialogue in “Loss? Found?” and others–many of the stories in this collection defy traditional story structure in favor of forms we (and the characters) encounter in the less-than-literary aspects of our technology-ridden lives.
It’s also hard not to think of Junot Díaz, since among these stories there are analogous obsessions with certain subjects–Jewish culture, North Florida, smokeless cigarettes, the body. As with Díaz’s characters, the reader may be tempted to confabulate these attributes with the author, but unlike Díaz, Pactor reveals to us a broad panoply of situations and people through whose lives these factors simply echo, tying these stories together via their physical characteristics more than via their protagonists. While the author may shine through in places, the sheer variety of people inhabiting these pages defies any singular identity.
While the more unusually structured pieces are fascinating, the most resonant stories in this collection are the traditional narratives. In “Sharkey Dreams,” Sharkey, a disgruntled former restaurant employee, returns to confront his boss with a gun after hours. The only problem he encounters is that the drug-addled narrator, no stranger to having guns pulled on him, has stayed late as well.
In “My Sick Faith in the Healing Power of Words, Ended, Finally,” there are no hard drugs, but a father and son cope with loss via a period of cathartic drinking. Again, the North Florida landscape, the Jewish cultural backdrop, but here, a familial bond coupled with familial discomfort enters the fray, and the paternal relationship is thus rendered with a deft and subtle complexity. Something similar occurs in “Concerning the Big Toe.” By structuring the story in the form of an interview conducted by an impartial questioner, its exploration of the relationship between the main character, Lawrence, and his mother explores a similarly nuanced and complicated connection between familial love and discomfort, one which, through the pressing questions of the interviewer, becomes downright clinical in places. The scene on pp. 100-101 in which we learn the graphic details of Lawrence’s obligation to bathe his mother’s naked body is especially uncomfortable, and yet also uncompromisingly human.
The concept of “death noises” only appears in the first few pages of this collection with the sound of a character “slurping” a smokeless cigarette, a sound which, we learn, might be “taken as evidence of plague,” per the story’s focal character. Nonetheless, while death itself may not be present in all the stories, a sense of corporeal mortality infuses the entire collection. Characters age and threaten each other, they damage themselves by smoking and drinking and taking risks, they use their bodies to influence each other and get what they want. The final story in the book, “The Hair’s Shape,” examines this corporeality in perhaps the simplest and yet most profound manner. In it, Carl, the protagonist, finds a strand of hair in his bathroom that has been formed into a four-sided diamond. Carl knows that it comes from a young woman who had recently visited him, and the story examines his theory that the shape of the hair evinces a message intended for him. This notion that the body might hold secrets and the influence that the body may exert on the human psyche provide a thematic underpinning to all of these stories. Hair, while derived from the living, is nonetheless dead, and yet it may still provide clues to the vibrant desires of those from whose bodies it falls.
One of the book jacket blurbs says that stories like these come from “bent brains.” The blurb means to imply that what’s happening here is new, and to a large degree, that’s true. Pactor’s voice, while reminiscent of other authors in some manners, is nonetheless indelibly inventive. But to characterize the author’s brain as “bent,” while certainly intended to spur curiosity, seems less accurate. The perspectives and narrative techniques employed in this collection are varied, and yet the overall vision is as precise, focused, and incisive as any new writing published today. Pactor is as fascinated and obsessed as his characters and as will be, I’m sure, his readers.
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