In this masterful short story collection, TC Boyle presents 12 snapshots of lives that have reached a critical point. Few of the characters are sympathetic, and often their problems are of their own making. “She’s The Bomb,” the tale of a student dropout desperate to avoid discovery at her would-be graduation, will resonate with anyone who has ever felt the rising panic of having monumentally messed up and then made matters worse by trying to cover up.
Other characters are victims of the circumstances of modern life, only here they inhabit a slightly tweaked present day, an alternative universe where virtual reality has overtaken real life, pets are genetically modified and global warming threatens to overrun islands in Alaska and cause life-changing droughts in California.
Boyle’s brand of futuristic fiction is so uncomfortably close to reality that the stories pack a prophetic punch. If these circumstances are not happening now, the reader feels, they are coming, and ominously soon.
Two of the stories stand out. The title story describes the emptiness felt by a father and daughter who avoid their current lives and instead immerse themselves in a new purchase: “The five-thousand-dollar, second-generation Halcom X1520 Relive Box with the In-Flesh Retinal Projection Stream”. It allows the user, by naming a date and time, to stand by and silently observe past events in their own lives.
The 15-year-old daughter, with no friends and no social life, constantly uses it to return to her happy pre-teen self, before her mother abandoned the family. The depressed father, when he can wrest the machine away, first does the same, reviewing the times when he first met his wife, then returning to the thrill of other youthful romantic relationships – who wouldn’t do the same? – before spiralling downwards into hours and days repeatedly watching himself mess up his life at key moments.
It is a gripping story, warning of the risks of living a virtual life, which many of us already do to an extent, but also the danger of comparing your life then and now, and being paralysed into bleak lethargy by the comparison.
The other story in this tightly written collection which will continue to haunt me is “Subtract One Death,” about a novelist’s close brush with his own demise, which includes a description of being trapped in a coffin-like enclosure while water rushes in. The horror is brief, but so vivid that I had to get up and walk around the room afterwards to shake it off.
*The Relive Box And Other Stories, by TC Boyle, Bloomsbury, £18.99