Book Review – Love In Vain by Lewis Shiner
Lewis Shiner is known to me as one of the early cyberpunk authors, but his collection Love In Vain isn’t cyberpunk. It’s not even science fiction for the most part. It is, however, very good. Published by Ticonderoga in 2009, this collection of nearly two dozen stories showcases Shiner’s abilities at lengths ranging from flash fiction to novelette. Personally I found his longer works more interesting, not least the newer, previously uncollected “Perfidia”.
In “Perfidia”, Frank Delacorte, a collector with a penchant for ebay auctions, stumbles on a highly irregular recording of a Glenn Miller song. In his attempt to unravel the mystery, Frank travels to Paris to trace the recording back to its original owner. Meanwhile, Frank’s father, who had been one of the American soldiers that liberated the Dachau concentration camp at the end of World War Two, lays dying in a US hospital. Shiner’s depiction of Paris circa 2000 is particularly atmospheric, and the story of Miller’s last tape is original and engaging. My only complaint is that the story ended long before I would like it to, which I guess is a compliment to Shiner’s technique, given that “Perfidia” is around 50 pages in length.
“Love in Vain” features the first of this collection’s failed marriage narratives. Dave McKenna is an Assistant D. A. tasked with interviewing Charlie, a convict who has confessed to far more murders than he could ever have possibly committed. He even admits to made-up murders, but oddly enough many of the facts he provides turn out to be true. Dave has problems of his own, primarily his tenuous relationship with his wife Alice. Dave’s old friend Jack tries to lift him from his funk by taking him to see an old flame, Kristi Spector, who is now an exotic dancer, but nothing much seems to help. Jack explains:”There’s things you don’t want in your head. Once they get in there, you’re not the same any more.” (p61) Dave’s personal problems, coupled with the stress of dealing with the unreliable Charlie, begin to loosen his grip on reality, and by the end of the story Dave is poised to lose more than just his home and marriage.
“Scales” features a female narrator with relationship problems of her own. Her marriage to Richard having hit rocky ground, she becomes increasingly concerned as her husband begins to behave erratically. The problem seems to be one of Richard’s students, Lili, who appears to have a particularly insidious hold over him. Having finally had enough of her husband’s cheating, she makes off with their infant daughter, Emily, but like most breakups it’s not as straightforward as that. Here Shiner verges on the territory of the fantastic, as Lili seems to be not only an adulteress, but perhaps not wholly human.
Fathers come in for a bit of a beating in Love In Vain, and “Match” is the purest example of this. Fathers in these stories are generally aged, inflexible and cruel, but the son in “Match” isn’t much nicer himself. Tennis provides the arena for a clash of wills between the frail and disapproving father and the absent, ungrateful son. The son wins the battle on the day, but loses the war as the father suffers his latest mini heart attack. “Match” is a good example of the emotional power of Shiner’s writing, which here as elsewhere is typically devoid of literary flourishes.
Another powerful realist tale is “Dirty Work”, in which a down-and-out type falls in with an ex-school mate of his, Dennis. Dennis has made good for himself in the world, and is now working as a lawyer getting rapists off their charges, even if some of the proceeds do seem to find their way up his nose. Dennis gives our protagonist a job trailing Lane Rochelle, an alleged rape victim. Feeling bad about the whole thing, but entirely too poor to contemplate knocking the money back, he starts following Lane around with a minimum of stealth. Perhaps significantly, “Dirty Work” is one of the few stories in Love In Vain where the protagonist is fairly happily married. Things turns nasty when the rapist Javier turns up at Lane’s house, but both he and our protagonist get their just desserts.
“Primes” is just as good as the stories described above, and it’s one of the few in this collection to contain science fictional elements. As Shiner explains in his Afterword, many of his stories are about failure: failure in relationships, failure at work, failure at life. In “Primes”, Nick returns home from work to discover that not only is his house now occupied by his wife’s dead former husband, but also that he has been made redundant at work by a cosmic occurrence on the grandest of scales. Two parallel universes seem to have merged into one, doubling the world’s population in an instant. This soon has disastrous consequences, and poor old Nick loses pretty much everything in the reshuffle that follows.
There are other kinds of stories in Love In Vain, and most of them are better than decent. The shorter works tended not to appeal to me as greatly as those described above, but there is one historical ghost story, “Gold”, which I found quite evocative. Famous personages like Elvis Presley, Nikolai Tesla and Lee Harvey Oswald feature in the shorter fantasies, and many of Shiner’s tales revolve around rock and roll in one way or another. “Jeff Beck” was my favourite of these. This is my way of saying that Shiner is a versatile writer whose work is likely to appeal to a variety of audiences, and thus you’re likely to find something to like here, too.