Books

T. C. Boyle
The Relive Box

Thomas Coraghessan Boyle is a respected American writer who, despite penning 16 novels and 11 short-story collections, has never managed to set the literary world ablaze. His work is commendable, readable and occasionally veers into the fantastical, but is rarely memorable. His short fiction, 12 examples of which appear in this latest collection, The Relive Box, is featured in the kind of stalwart American magazines that still publish short stories, such as The New Yorker, Playboy and Kenyon Review.

It is easy to see why. Determinedly middlebrow, the stories often involve naive, vanilla Americans whose relationships are tested by trying circumstances and changing times. Natural disasters, disease, crime and fraud all feature here. Unlike a lot of short fiction, these are at least narrative stories with character and plot, rather than thin personal anecdotes. In that sense, they are satisfying, and when Boyle throws in a curve ball, his work is elevated to a level bordering on excellent.

Highlights include “The Argentine Ant”, which has a warring couple with a newborn battling an insect infestation in their rented holiday house. Or the genetically engineered pets of “Are We Not Men?” – the flocks of foul-mouthed crow-parrots that terrorise a neighbourhood are a delight. The title story is especially relevant, with a single father and his daughter becoming lost in the technological marvel of a console that grants users the ability to relive memories. Graphic reruns of the father’s sexual encounters and the daughter’s recaptured moments with her dead mother guarantee that neither wants to leave the house again.

Other stories are less interesting. “She’s the Bomb” sees a teenager ruining her career prospects by calling in a bomb threat to her high-school graduation party. “The Designee” has a retiree caught up in one of those banking scams where the promise of $30 million entices him to hand over his life savings to overly polite British Nigerians. Neither offers much in the way of surprises.

In other words, The Relive Box is this year’s entry in the T. C. Boyle canon. There’s much to enjoy in these well-composed stories, but readers will perhaps be unlikely to offer a glowing recommendation to friends. For his fans, it offers a continuation of what Boyle has done so competently for decades – pleasing short fiction with the occasional tantalising glimpse of something greater.  JD

Bloomsbury, 272pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 4, 2017 as "T. C. Boyle, The Relive Box ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: JD

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