When I was young, my dad took me to the theatre for all kinds of flicks—ones that I now pause and think about before showing my own son (he’s six and has yet to see many of the movies I did at that age; notably, T2: Judgment Day). On countless weekends, we’d hit the cinema to watch the newest Van Damme or Schwarzenegger movie.
What does any of this have to do with a book of short stories? I bring up movies because Joshua Chaplinsky’s new book, Whispers in the Ear of a Dreaming Ape, is an extremely cinematic book. The way he writes is the same kind of storytelling that made me fall in love with this stuff.
When I was young, I wasn’t drawn to Jurassic Park or Hard Target because of their technical skills, but because they were cool fucking movies. Chaplinsky’s book is also cool (and I’d say he’s a better writer than whoever cobbled together Hard Target). In a perfect world, we’d be getting adaptations of these brutal stories next year. The last story is the best horror movie you haven’t seen. I read it with the same fascination I have while watching a Rob Zombie movie. This isn’t a collection that’s going to make you feel good at the end, but you’re sure as shit going to get your money out of it based on the sheer amount of entertainment value.
Chaplinsky is riding the current wave of horror-comedy success, and he’s proving exactly why it has come into popularity. When it’s good, it’s really good and it transcends the genre, ushering all different kinds of people into it. Friends whom I never imagined would like a horror movie, ended up loving Cabin in the Woods. The humor softens the horror, and the horror creates the perfect amount of tension to set up gut-busting punchlines.
This works in Whispers in the Ear of a Dreaming Ape, too. There are moments when I was deeply unsettled, and others when I was cackling. With that said, nothing in this book should be funny—a power-hungry man with the king’s ear hanging around his neck, a brutal murderer on death row getting explicit sex letters, a reality snuff show that will make fans of Hostel squirm—but it’s all extremely funny. Again, it’s Chaplinsky’s ability to release the tension at the perfect moment to get a nervous laughter, proving he knows just how much pressure to put on.
Whispers in the Ear of a Dreaming Ape is an extremely cinematic book. The way Joshua Chaplinsky writes is the same kind of storytelling that made me fall in love with this stuff.
Occasionally in the collection, Chaplinsky breaks writing conventions by experimenting with structure and form; and while it’s interesting to read from a craft perspective, I didn’t fully buy into these stories. One is a collection of letters to an inmate on death row. Another is formatted like a critique exploring classic videogames, where the whole story is broken into specific sections. These were intriguing but didn’t hit as hard as the stories written within a traditional format.
For me, it’s like early-Palahniuk vs late-Palahniuk. In the beginning, we got inventive stories that were transgressive and pushed boundaries, where the experimenting took place in the content being explored. But then it was like Palahniuk got bored and wanted to push his experimental fascination to new exciting levels. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when he started changing things up (notably with Pygmy and Tell-All) it was as if he focused more on structure rather than story. It’s difficult to pull off because you’re already starting with one hand tied behind your back.
I don’t think this is exactly what’s happening with Chaplinsky, but when he does the experimental stuff, something wasn’t quite clicking for me. It’s amusing and fun, but it doesn’t seem to head to anywhere substantial. They’re missing an emotional core; and they feel more like an exercise in what he can do rather than telling a compelling story. Within traditional prose, he was able to experiment on the content level, and I found myself deeply engaged, walking away with a lot more on my mind.
The highlight story of the book (for me) is “The Black Hole.” It left me with an overwhelming urge to hug my kids a little tighter. It’s about a man watching his daughter’s life quickly pass him from afar. This is because he is in space—duh—where the duration of time is elongated—like five minutes there equal five years on Earth. Over the span of an evening, he watches his six-year-old girl grow up, living out her entire life. I tend to hear people say that “life is short,” but I don’t totally agree. In my opinion, life is pretty damn long, but it’s a mental trick to make it feel short. Whenever we’re looking at anything in retrospect, we’re able to hold it in the palm of our hand. It feels small because our memory allows it to be. “The Black Hole” understands this and is looking at a life in the past, but in real-time. That’s what is so touching about it. The father understands what is happening, but there isn’t anything he can do about it. He has to sit there, through the inevitable passage of time, and try to glean whatever he can before everything ends.
What Joshua Chaplinsky has given us with Whispers in the Ear of a Dreaming Ape is an experimental set of stories that mostly shine with brilliant insight and are always entertaining. It’s a close look at humans on the macro level through a micro lens. He’s showing us how little our lives actually matter, but in the end, they’re still our lives. Within this short book, he’s packaged optimism in a cloak of cynicism, which is truly the only way to do it.