Short Accounts of Tragic Occurrences

Short Accounts of Tragic Occurrences

By Christopher Olson

A review of Short Accounts Of Tragic Occurrences by Nick Mcarthur

Published on November 1, 2009

Short Accounts Of Tragic Occurrences
Nick Mcarthur

DC Books
$16.95
paper
82pp
978-1-897190-50-0

Dying is easy, comedy is hard. Nick McArthur seems to find both in equal quantities, jovially mixing dark humour and slapstick.

“I write five, ten obituaries a day, mostly for dead people,” writes McArthur (in what could be an autobiographical excerpt) in “The Obituary Writer’s Story,” which is the ‘pre-mortem’ for a woman who continues living long after her family has resorted to pulling the plug.

A graduate of Concordia’s creative writing program, McArthur anthologizes some material previously published in Matrix magazine (including the excerpt above), in Short Accounts of Tragic Occurrences, an eclectic and sometimes frighteningly bizarre series of stories. Take a look at one of his sharp left turns:

 

Mr. Bloomer boiled the eggs and mashed them in a large bowl. He added mayonnaise and chopped onions, stirred the mix, buttered the bread, and died before lunchtime. The sandwich, uneaten, lay on the table. The mayonnaise was full of regret, and the eggs never said goodbye to their mother. The onions cried.

 

Though certainly not everyone in the book dies, those that do never seem quite prepared, nor are they particularly introspective in their final moments. In “Effective in Five Minutes,” for example, a man who has just swallowed a cyanide tablet while watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie, is more wrapped up in the experience of watching the film than in the experience of dying – and it doesn’t even seem to be that good a film.

In “Sayreville,” a man and a woman meet in a bar and instantly arrange to be married by a suicide cult. Giving themselves to the cult without reservation, they bypass the mandatory brainwashing period but wisely agree not to rush into parenthood as well.

In “Comments Heard Around the World in the Hours Before It Ended,” a Dr. Strangelove-esque story, the governments of presumably evil countries – like the infamous members of the “axis of evil” – assemble in bunkers prior to the earth’s demise. Baffled observations are made by anonymous individuals around the world. The cause of this imminent human extinction is a seemingly irrelevant detail to McArthur; it is a MacGuffin to get to the hilarity that he assumes will ensue. Just so we don’t get bored, McArthur throws in a time traveller who hits on women and has the best excuse ever for a quick getaway when things don’t seem to be going well: he tells them that his future self has appeared expressly in order to forbid their courtship.

McArthur is richly imaginative and almost always macabre. He gleefully hops and bounds over the deeper questions concerning life and death, instead putting forward original queries such as: how soon following an apocalypse can another apocalypse occur?

When death isn’t the be-all and end-all of his stories, Short Accounts explores the grossness of human anatomy. In a sequel of sorts to his apocalypse tale, McArthur conjures up a world inhabited by mutants produced by the fallout of a million atomic weapons. All natural laws are broken. Mother Nature is free to experiment with endless variations of soon-to-be extinct species, which – due to radiation – are no longer inhibited from crossbreeding. Centaurs and fauns appear and disappear quite early in the process, before giving way to more hideous mutations.

True to its name, Short Accounts of Tragic Occurrences is brief. For some, McArthur will come as a refreshing new literary voice, while those not expecting his dark wit and bizarre subject matter might be turned off instantly. Such readers should re-examine their first impression and dare themselves to dig deeper into what McArthur has to offer. mRb

Christopher Olson is Literary Arts Editor of Concordia's "The Link".

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