Seth Fried’s debut collection The Great Frustration mixes and matches his gonzo hijinx with a deft emotional darkness.
A blurb on the back of Seth Fried’s debut collection The Great Frustration compares the young writer to George Saunders, and after reading these eleven stories it’s not hard to see why. Fried uses the same wacky concepts and possesses a similar sense of empathy, but to declare him derivative would do a great disservice to his work. While some stories are less successful than others, the best employ a first-person plural viewpoint that stands in for a town, a group of scientists, henchmen who have to squeeze a monkey into a capsule. The effect is fresh and unique even as it borrows from Faulkner and Eugenides, among others.
The chief strength of The Great Frustration is that these stories all feel thematically different from one another while remaining united by voice. So many times when I read story collections—especially debuts—it feels like I’m going through variations of the same arc over and over again. Fried never falls victim to this trap. The first story in the collection, “Loeka Discovered”, is arguably the strongest. Centered on the discovery of the frozen body of an ancient man, “Loeka” covers the rise and fall of a group of scientists tasked with analyzing the specimen.
We wondered if we were parasites. Had our relationships with our colleagues changed so quickly because of something latently flawed that they had recognized in us? We began to think that maybe there was nothing wrong with them at all but that we were just oblivious, emotionally handicapped monsters, doomed for the rest of our lives to commit the same sins against all the well-meaning people who would ever be fortunate enough to find themselves in our path.
Like the aforementioned George Saunders and even Etgar Keret, Seth Fried uses bizarre settings and kooky hijinx to get readers to lower their guards. Don’t be fooled. These are not light stories. Fried often goes in for the kill when you least expect it, mining an emotional depth from his intensely flawed characters that is rare in debut fiction. Stories like “Loeka Discovered” are as heartbreaking as they are funny.
Similarly successful is “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre”, a story told in the same first-person plural as above about an annual small-town picnic that racks up casualties year after year.
Another year, all the children who played in the picnic’s bouncy castle died of radiation poisoning. Yet another year, it was discovered halfway through the picnic that a third of the port-a-potties contained poisonous snakes. The year that the picnic offered free hot air balloon rides, none of the balloons that left—containing people laughing and waving from the baskets, snapping pictures as they ascended—ever returned.
Like the great cultural satirists, Fried makes a great point about how frightened people are of change without losing the humanity and humor that makes this piece shine. “Those of Us in Plaid” works equally well, lampooning the drudgery and sheer pointlessness of so many office jobs. A group of workers—designated as inferior stock by their plaid uniforms—are tasked with jamming a monkey into a capsule which will then be picked up by a helicopter and dropped into a volcano rigged with explosives. Read that sentence again. Fried’s at his best when he tosses convention to the wind and allows himself to go all out crazy with his subject matter and settings. In stories like these, Fried reads less like a George Saunders disciple and more like a very original, talented voice at the beginning of what looks to be a promising career. Stories like “The Frenchman”, about a racist play unknowingly performed by children, allow Fried to play up the jokes before bringing the emotional hammer down, a potent one-two punch.
Not every story fares as well as the above four. Fried falters when he abandons his innate sense of humor. “The Misery of the Conquistador” makes a turgid statement about greed in a manner similar to Wells Tower’s “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” but without the heart and wit Fried’s best stories convey. The same can be said for “Life in the Harem”, a strange, Kafka-esque tale of a heterosexual man dropped into an all female harem in service to a sexually frustrated king. Fried sometimes appears less confident in his ability to nail emotional beats. He occasionally over-explains emotional states—the reluctance of the people in “Picnic Massacre”, the self-doubt of the scientists in “Loeka”—that are already successfully implied. But these problems are mostly minor and indicative of debut collections in general, and the number of successful, hysterical stories vastly outnumber the few pieces that aren’t firing on all cylinders.
Seth Fried’s The Great Frustration is the type of debut story collection I love reading. Some of the stories don’t hit as hard as they could, but the ones that do work—in Fried’s case, pieces that mix and match his gonzo hijinx with a deft emotional darkness—signal the arrival of a new talent.