David S. Atkinson is the author of Not Quite So Stories, The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes (2015 National Indie Excellence Awards finalist in humor), and Bones Buried in the Dirt (2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist, First Novel <80K). His writing appears in Bartleby Snopes, Grey Sparrow Journal, Atticus Review, and others. He spends his non-literary time working as a patent attorney in Denver.
"With Not Quite So Stories, there's no need to suspend disbelief. David S. Atkinson makes the absurd 100% believable. These stories are hilarious and real. Atkinson is on his way to becoming the master of absurdity."
"Not Quite So Stories doesn’t have stories, sentences, paragraphs, characters, nah, it has bright explosions of color that will knock you over. David S. Atkinson is Kurt Vonnegut and Aimee Bender wrestling spotted leopards as George Saunders eats popcorn and claps."
"In Not Quite So Stories David S. Atkinson creates conflict within the moral and the immoral of society, a world where things are not what they seem, yet are represented deliciously by something altered. Atkinson creates spaces where inanimate objects become animated, soft sodded lawns have landmines and good old reality is replaced by a new reality someone must explain to you. In fact, good is never always good, and evil is never always evil—because Atkinson’s black and white animals are really green and pink zebras."
One of the most common questions in the world of fiction is, "Which form is superior: the novel or the short story?" (That is, if one extreme must be taken over the other. The novella is usually a suitable compromise.) While it’s impossible to pick one over the other with complete objectivity, there is one important factor to consider: the latter typically allows storytellers to unleash their most unconventional concepts with maximum brevity and pacing, ensuring that these peculiarities leave an impression but conclude before they become laborious or unremarkable. Case in point: Not Quite So Stories, the newest collection by David S. Atkinson (whose previous two books, Bones Buried in the Dirt and The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes, were copiously acclaimed within the indie publishing scene). Comprised of roughly two dozen quirky vignettes, the book proffers an abundance of colorful slice-of-life situations and philosophical ponderings. Although there are a few stumbles along the way, the bulk of the sequence is highly engaging and memorable, making it a very worthwhile read.
The traditional explanation for myth . . . is an attempt by humans to explain and demystify the world. That's crap. We may be able to come to terms with small pieces, but existence as a whole is beyond our grasp. Life is absurd, ultimately beyond our comprehension. The best we can do is to proceed on with our lives in the face of that. The stories in this collection proceed from this idea, examining how the different characters manage (and/or fail) to do this.
The majority of the tales included here capture this outlook, with the best examination being “An Endless Series of Meaningless Miracles.” It begins with a very simple incident: one day, “aging [and] pudgy” William P. Forsmythe (who feels a bit like an elderly version of Alvy Singer from Woody Allen’s brilliant Annie Hall) gets into his bathtub for his daily soak and notices that the water level sinks instead of rises. Relentlessly perplexed by how “the tub water had acted contrary to universal laws [of displacement],” he sets out to experience a few more acts of God in a single day and discover a new purpose in life. Despite the pacing sometimes getting bogged down by clarifications as the narrative unfolds (which, to be honest, is a reoccurring issue throughout the collection), the text is nonetheless consistently intriguing and inventive, with a plethora of subtle details that make it feel very realistic. After all, “it did not occur to Warren that the miracle was utterly insignificant, however inexplicable it was. Warren’s life was too insignificant as it was; he craved significance,” and the way Atkinson uses his character’s trajectory to comment on humanity’s need for self-actualization (as well as how easily we ascribe to fantastical beliefs to assuage our sense of desperation and loneliness) is understated yet masterful. It’s definitely a highlight of Not Quite So Stories.
Another metaphysical gem is “The Bricklayer’s Ambiguous Morality,” which concerns an inexplicable accident involving two friends, a brick, and causality. While its surreal events may suggest mere superficial entertainment at first, there’s definitely an underlying commentary on how misguided gun enthusiasm can conflate with misplaced senses of patriotism and masculinity. Atkinson demonstrates skill in capturing the conversations and reactions of conventional adolescent males, and the way he puts a spin on the familiar condition of two kids goofing around until something horrible happens is clever and refreshing. In other words, the catalyst for the tragedy may be purposefully silly, but its implications are strikingly relevant to modern America.
Among the peak creative concoctions in Not Quite So Stories is “60% Rayon and 40% Evil,” a fascinating and novel take on the killer doll cliché. Told from the perspective of a “five-inch stuffed bear” who “fully acknowledge[s] that [he has] a desire for murder,” the story is remarkable because of how the barbaric and remorseless actions of its protagonist are juxtaposed with his intellectual rationalizations. Rather than act as a soulless, bloodthirsty creature from hell (as is usual), Mr. Rictus (as his owner, Tristan, names him) is a product of his own backstory; Tristan pretends that the bear is a homicidal maniac, and, as Mr. Rictus suggests:
However, strangely enough, and according to no mechanism that I at all comprehended, it all became true. In fits and spurts, I found myself becoming aware . . . . After all, it was a game, a theatrical trick, which Tristan had developed. The intent would have been spoiled if it had to be suddenly acknowledged as fact. One of the core features of Tristan’s fiction was that I killed when no one, particularly him, was looking, so that is exactly what I did.
From there, the two develop a relationship akin to the one explored in the Twilight Zone episode “Caesar and Me.” The way the piece ends isn’t entirely surprisingly, yet there’s no doubt that its final line—“Colloquially put, you people blow my mind. Perhaps that is one of the reasons I kill so many of you”—is chilling.
Filling its hyperbolic central conflict with practical insinuations, “Domestic Ties” feels a bit like a lost Vonnegut effort. It centers on Charlotte, an archetypal 1950s-esque housewife (her husband is even named Ward) who’s preparing her home for the impending arrival of a prisoner. You see, a jury notice:
notified that the state would be requisitioning the use of her home for the purpose of providing shelter to a convict. The prisons were impossibly overcrowded, the letter informed. Unable to determine any other immediate solution, the state had no choice but to place prisoners in private residences.
Once he arrives (and is confined to a small space in her kitchen), the two engage in various instances of uncomfortable cultural shock, as Charlotte is dutifully respectful yet cautious because the prisoner is both incredibly meek and inherently threatening. All in all, it’s a very engaging and tastefully written tale, with a conclusion that, while not overly dramatic or substantial, makes readers question the nature of Man.
Although most of the book is wonderfully captivating and idiosyncratic, there are a few missteps along the way. The most glaring issue (aside from the aforementioned repetitiveness) is that some of these selections fail to warrant their length. In other words, either the premises themselves aren’t appealing enough or not enough happens within them. Works like “G-Men,” “Cents of Wonder Rhymes with Orange,” and “The Elusive Qualities of Advanced Office Equipment” are certainly written well, but they aren’t especially compelling; instead, they just kind of happen without leaving much to reflect on or remember. The biggest offender of all is “A Brief Account of the Great Toilet Paper War of 2012,” a lengthy exploration of how a simple marital squabble over pride escalates into ridiculous territory. The issue at hand is certainly relatable, and even a bit humorous, but the joke wears out its welcome far too soon, resulting in a tedious slog to the end. Empirical resonance notwithstanding, even people who’ve been in the same situation before will want to move on ASAP.
Not Quite So Stories succeeds far more often than it fails, and honestly, isn’t that the real test of a short story collection? None of the pieces are without merit, and the bulk of them provide resourceful plots, three-dimensional characters, and best of all, enthralling writing on a technical level. Atkinson has a gift for fleshing out strange narrative shells with dense minutiae, articulate wording, and weighty meanings. He certainly has a distinctive perspective on life, as well as an equally original way to deliver it; anyone looking to be simultaneously entertained and enlightened should read Not Quite So Stories.