Mathias B. Freese’s slim collection of short stories, Down to a Sunless Sea, relays the weird, miserable, and even sometimes ghoulish existences of people you might pass on the street everyday. The stories read like psychological case studies, and there’s frequently a strange distance between the clinical detachment of the prose and the depressed or depraved sentiment expressed by the narrator. At times the effect is painful, as in “Herbie,” where the titular protagonist’s rage at his abusive father spills over into Oedipal violence. Elsewhere, the stories take on a wry surrealist humor. Freese’s knack for dissonance evinces in “Juan Peron’s Hands,” where a grave robber pines for a head but settles for hands. Far closer to home is “Young Man,” where Freese distills an entire life to a few bitter pages, exploring the modern disconnect between thought, action and identity.
I can’t be who I am in real life, so I can be who I am in thought, but who I am in thought is not who I am in deed, so I live between what is and what should be, and this serves to make sharper the cleavage–the crevices are clearly marked.
One of my favorites in the collection, “Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Father Was a Nazi,” disconcertingly (and humorously) condenses American obsession with celebrity into a fantasy ski trip, complete with the oddly sorta-prescient line: “I might even run for president if I can lose this accent” (the story was originally published in 1991). It is probably the deformed voyeur hero of “I’ll Make It, I Think” who delivers the closest thing to a mantra for these characters:
I’m not hurting anyone. So what if my morning shorts are sticky. I’m a good person. The outside, for sure, is a shambles–that’s not completely true, but I’ve made my point. Inside is fucked up some, but I’ll make it, I think.
Down to a Sunless Sea, for all its monsters and perverts and manic depressives, is never cruel in its darkness or unsympathetic in its distance. Freese creates real people here, and if we laugh at their pain, we’re laughing with them. Highly recommended.