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Out of this world

Benjamin Rosenbaum’s The Ant King
By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  August 26, 2008

PLAUSIBLE: An abundance of sensual detail grounds Rosenbaum’s alien tales in the familiar.

The Ant King and Other Stories | By Benjamin Rosenbaum | Small Beer Press | 234 pages | $24
You could file Benjamin Rosenbaum’s debut collection of genre-blurring short stories under a number of categories: speculative or science fiction, fantasy, fairy tale, surrealism, irrealism, slipstream, postmodern parables. But the description that proves most accurate comes from one of Rosenbaum’s own stories: plausible fabulism. Put out by Small Beer Press in Western Mass, The Ant King and Other Stories zips along in a way that is lively, bizarre, and funny as well as dark, sinister, and sensual. Comparisons with Kelly Link and Aimee Bender are natural; there are also glimmers of Barthes, Barthelme, and Calvino — and, of course, a fleet of science-fiction writers.

Rosenbaum sent his first story to the New Yorker at age 13. He quit writing as a sophomore at Brown, where he pursued computer programming and religious studies, became a programmer, and then started writing again at 27. His dual university pursuits dance throughout the collection.

In the title story — a corporate-culture send-up and classic rescue quest, with echoes of Orpheus and Eurydice and on-line gaming geekdom — a character named Vampire spouts code-toadery: “What do you know about NetBSD 2.5 routing across multiple DNS servers?” In “Embracing-the-New,” there’s a sense of mythmaking. “How can the Godless really be godless,” asks an apprentice idol carver. “For without a god, a person would just be a shifting collection of memories.”

And though these stories are populated by wish-granting hedgehogs, a world-ruling piece of fruit, and a pack of kids out real-estate shopping, the worlds Rosenbaum creates feel less like a separate or “alternate” reality and more like a colorful, if complicated, extension of the one we know. There’s a sensuality that helps ground us in the otherwise alien scenarios. From “The Valley of Giants”: “The giants whisper and hum, placing their great soft lips against your belly, your back. They stroke your hair, and their fingers, as big as plates, are so delicate. . . . The giant women feed you from their breasts. . . . The milk is sweet and rich like crème brûlée.” In “Orphans,” a woman falls in love with an elephant. “He would hold me to his chest, and I would be bathed in the deep smell of him, wild and rich.” In “Red Leather Tassels,” a woman whose husband is eyeing another woman has sex with an ancient woodpecker. “George’s wife felt a pleasant, feathery tickling.”

Rosenbaum also employs the old trick of critiquing his own narrator. “A woman steps off a cliff,” he begins in “On the Cliff by the River.” Then, “No. That’s not the right place to start. Begin again.” This acknowledgment of the artifice of storytelling edges toward irritating. A real storyteller — and he is — doesn’t have to resort to “meta” sleights of hand.

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