March 8, 2012

Do you like this?

Thomas Balázs’ devious plan worked. I read the forbidden story. ¶ He teased an audience with “The Gourmand” recently at the Jewish Community Center recently, reading only the first few pages because, he said, it’s one of the most disturbing ones in his debut collection of nine stories. So disturbing that when he read it to other audiences ... they asked him to stop.

So of course I read it as soon as I could. I wasn’t disturbed, but I have a pretty strong stomach. It’s by far the darkest of these stories that weave darkness, obsession, hope, love, bitterness and compassion into subtle and delightful patterns.

The book’s title story—“Omicron Ceti III”—riffs off of a classic “Star Trek” episode, “This Side of Paradise.” The Enterprise stumbles upon a paradise planet of that name, where generous puffs of alien pollen throw everyone into loving ecstasy, even the incurably rational Spock, until Capt. Kirk plays God and removes the crew from paradise so they can return to their duties.

Despite having a Star Trek reference in its title, this book is not science fiction. In Balázs’ “Omicron Ceti III,” a young man in a mental institution who has lost way too much sees everything in threes and is falling for a pillowy-soft girl who sleeps a lot. Like a nine-pack of subtly different wines, some stories are sweeter, some dry, some bitter. His book is peopled with characters in extreme but entirely terrestrial situations.

Balázs teaches creative writing at UTC, and this is his first book. These and other stories have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies and have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

Balázs likes to play games with reader expectations in these stories. Most have a little hook at the end, some quiet flourish of hope, emptiness, love, resignation, regret or compassion. Nearly all chart a descent through the logic of an obsession—a gourmand searches for more and more outré things to consume; a closeted gay teen relentlessly shadows and persecutes a closeted gay teacher; a failing salesman is drawn into the caves of Tijuana, Mexico.

Balázs said he likes to explore individuals or situations that might initially make a reader feel uncomfortable and then bring them around to empathize.

Perhaps mirroring his disturbed lead character in “Omicron Ceti 3,” Balázs has organized the book in three sections. Each includes three stories and begins with a quote from the “Star Trek” episode (which of course has a three-word title—and one of those three words is “three”). In those three epigraphs, Spock declares his love. His lover says, “And this is for my good?” when they are back on the Enterprise and love is no longer on the menu, after which Kirk famously says, “Maybe we weren’t meant for paradise.”

These characters aren’t either. In his three-story groupings, Balázs says characters struggle with love, the limitations of desire, and in the final group, “follow their desire to the final degree, finding that ultimately there are no easy answers, that life is a struggle. There’s no ideal paradise for them to go to, they’re just going to tough it out through life.”

No one in these stories could be considered to be truly in paradise, but everyone is obsessed with some kind of paradise substitute: the perfect meal, a lost cat, being a righteous tormentor, finding the next massage parlor.

“Obsession is a kind of narcotic that somehow eases pain or causes one to forget one’s pain, at least temporarily,” Balázs said. “It’s kind of a false paradise. Obsession is kind of a false paradise for these characters, but there is no real paradise anywhere in this post-paradisal world. They are looking for some perfect solution and it just doesn’t exist. If we don’t want to refer to these obsessions as paradise, another way is Spock’s characterization of them as self-made purgatories, which I like.”

No one is really in control, either, but they are trying desperately to control their fates. Sometimes they are being run by their obsessions, sometimes they are almost using them as tools. But Balázs doesn’t make cheap thrills or moralistic sermons from them.

“What I hope they are is really good stories, multi-layered complex stories,” he said. “It just so happens that when I tell stories I usually go into places that are dark and come across as comic.”


March 8, 2012

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