Review: “People Are Strange” by Eric Gamalinda

An uncharitable reaction to the title of Eric Gamalinda’s collection of short stories would be a heavily rhetorical “are they?”  As well as being the title to a song by The Doors, it’s hardly an earth-shattering revelation.  It is, perhaps, a little unfair to judge a book by its title, but it’s an integral part of the book, and the first or second thing any reader is going to notice: this one does the collection no favours.

The strongest story in the collection “Famous Literary Frauds” retells the Cyrano de Bergerac story for the Oprah Winfrey age.  The ugly, but eloquent wordsmith is a creative writing professor who believes he can’t get published because of his age and appearance; his mouthpiece is a talentless, but beautiful student: “beautiful people cannot write good poetry” the professor tells us.  Bryan, his student, says he wants “to be as technically agile as Cyrano de Bergerac,” a knowing nod, in case we think that this is just an unoriginal plot.  Writing about writers can be a dangerous indulgence; and writing about writing teachers even more so; knowing references to the origins of a story are more dangerous still.  “Famous Literary Frauds” adopts a high-risk strategy that pays off.  The characters are engaging, the plot features enough twists on the original to keep the reader interested, and the broader theme–literary originality and our cultural obsession with youth–while not especially new, is still a fruitful area.

Elsewhere, the collection is less surefooted.  “People Are Strange” features a narrator–also called Eric Gamalinda–who can change between different races and therefore different identities.  This is a fascinating idea, but it isn’t properly explored.  Rather than examining the different experiences of the same event that each identity could have, the story focuses on the narrator’s individual consciousness as a man marginalised by an extraordinary characteristic.  This too could be fruitful, but it suffers from a heavy-handed prose style: “I have left the world’s experts bewildered and stymied by the sheer inexplicability of my talent,” is one particularly clunky example.  The story finds its laborious way into sci-fi/thriller territory and ends disappointingly.

Other stories struggle to leave an impression.  There are half-formed sketches of unusual characters: “Elvis of Manila” is about an Elvis impersonator; “I Alone and the Hours”, a middle-aged divorcee who learns to use the internet a month before he is killed.  These offer promising situations, but never quite get off the ground.  We get brief glimpses of strange situations, before meandering off into inconclusiveness.  Enigmatic endings can be more satisfying than neat conclusions.  Too often, however, these stories give the impression that the author just ran out of things to say.

People Are Strange is published by Black Lawrence Press and is available on Amazon.

*

Having spent most of his twenties trying to be a musician Jason Jawando was finally forced to give up and get a proper job.  He began writing fiction and poetry in his early thirties and has been published in a number of print and online publications.