Wednesday, December 30, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #30: Dakota McFadzean

Dakota McFadzean's short stories reflect desolation. His stories are set in rural Canada, and the isolation of the area is almost palpable and contributes to the sense of existential dread and horror that is in every one of his stories. I've reviewed most of the stories in his newest collection, To Know You're Alive (Conundrum), in High-Low and other places, but the design of the book and the sequencing of the stories gives them a different context, so I decided to review them with fresh eyes. 

One running theme in McFadzean's work is the liminal space between reality and frightening fantasy and how children often make no distinction between the two. In "Gnoshlox," for example, an adult recalls playing in a sandbox and creating these sort of clay golem creatures he called "Gnoshlox." It was all matter-of-fact, and one day it ended, with the implication being that he changed somehow and was no longer able to make it happen. It was, metaphorically, the difference between magical thinking and the age of reason. This story was part of a suite about childhood experiences. "The Truck" is about the way children push each other to cross and push ethical lines and social mores, and what happens when lines are crossed. 

"Buzzy" expands on this idea and explores the ways in which socialization can warp kids. The title character is a misanthropic kid who starts going to a new school and finds that while he has to deal with the same kind of assholes as ever, his weird tics and explosive temper doesn't make life any easier for him. That's especially true when he doesn't know how to react to someone being nice to him and inevitably drives her away. McFadzean leans heavily on a John Stanley/Little Lulu style of scaled-down, cute-kid drawings as a way of contrasting the idealized quality of kids with a frequently more brutal reality. "Good Find" is a sort of companion piece to "Truck" in that an older kid eggs on a younger kid...but it's slowly revealed that this is a world where their monstrous features are just a casual fact of everyday life. "Hollow In The Hollows" moves the ages up a bit, where there's a greater understanding of one's own actions and how we hurt each other. It ends on a hopeful note, where the magic that one of the characters so desperately wishes is real manifests in the presence of a friend who has forgiven her behavior.

The "Intermission" section contains short pieces that reveal that even when McFadzean does gag work, it's tinged with dread. The most disturbing is "Ghostie," which is about a Casper-type boy ghost who gets rousted by bumbling ghost hunters and their monkey, and then remembers for a moment that he is dead and lets out a howl. It's funny and terrible all at once. "The Pasqua Penny Savor" draws a little on Chris Ware and others who've done fake comic strip pages with tiny panels, and it mixes in fantasy stuff with unnerving slice-of-life comics about families and parenting. 

The second half of the book is about the transition and tension between childhood and adulthood. The longest story is a gibberish title where the bear from a cereal box comes to life and menaces a kid in a non-stop parade of horror that's jammed into 24 panels per page. It's frantic and disturbing, as the kid does whatever he can to stop the leering, cheery menace that only seems to mutate and multiply. After seemingly vanquishing it, the bear returns in his adulthood to menace him further...only for the kid to pop back into childhood. The key to the story is its use of a bloodline spot red. It's sparing at first, but the kid eventually accepts the monster as his entire world is red. This silent story is an effective metaphor for understanding that our fears never really go away, but we can accept them. 

"Debug Mode" is about a programmer trying to find bugs in a game for a company with a weird hierarchical structure, only to learn that the game is much broader than she suspected. "First" is about first contact with an alien lifeform whose lack of demonstrable intelligence, but the story is really about the way in which social media and our cultural attention span quickly moves on to new, frequently stupid topics when the old one fails to entertain. "To Know You're Alive" is an autobiographical story about McFadzean taking care of his difficult toddler son. Being alone and taking care of a kid who is absolutely melting down is unbelievably difficult, and McFadzean captures the horror of that moment of losing one's temper and yelling back. That forbidden, guilt-inducing feeling of wanting to be freed from the burden. It centered around Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood on an old website, including weird, creepy episodes that were silent or filmed in the dark. 

The story reflected that key understanding that time is a different construct for kids, who will pass through that inconsolable rage and return to the steady-state of seeing his parents as his whole world and needing his father because he's scared. It is a fitting capper to a collection that reflects a parent's anxieties: fear of a child dying, fear of a child being bullied, fear of a child bullying, fear of a child not fitting in, and fear of failing your own children above all else. It's not an accident that the entire collection uses red as a spot color, because these stories are about McFadzean facing and ultimately accepting his own fears, understanding that they will always be there. We are always in the red.

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