The People’s Republic of Everything by Nick Mamatas
I don’t know if I simply wasn’t in the right mood for Nick Mamatas’ short-story collection The People’s Republic of Everything (2018), or if I’m not the right audience for his preferred themes and overall style, but this book and I just could not mesh.
There was one story, “Tom Silex, Spirit-Smasher,” which gripped my attention and had everything I look for in short fiction. The story focuses on Rosa Martinez, whose elderly grandmother might — through quirks of legality regarding her first marriage and the question of ownership of her first husband’s pulp publications — own the rights to a series of stories revolving around psychopomp Tom Silex. The character work is strong, the plot is laser-focused, and Mamatas’ ideas about family and the things we inherit, both tangible and intangible, are well-communicated.
On the whole, though, the stories within The People’s Republic of Everything often feel like they’re lacking something (narrative/thematic focus, clarification of details or character motivation, sometimes even just character voice) that would bring all of the elements together into a cohesive whole. I found myself relying heavily on Mamatas’ notes after each story in order to parse out what his goals and mindsets were for each work. His style tends toward the experimental and unconventional, with heavily Communist-influenced commentary on social and economic injustices, and he’s obviously an intelligent and thoughtful person, but those attributes weren’t enough to make his stories shine for me. Many of the works came across as either needing to be longer and more fleshed-out, or trimmed up and tightened. Some of them read like the literary equivalent of listening to a musician noodling around with potentially-interesting tones and phrases on an instrument without actually playing a song.
I’m certain Mamatas’ fans will enjoy this collection, and I’m sure they’ll find their reading experience illuminated by getting to read all of these previously-published stories at once, including the short novel Under My Roof, along with Mamatas’ insight and commentary.
I enjoyed Nick Mamatas’s story collection The People’s Republic of Everything more than Jana did. My experience with Mamatas’s work is his novel I am Providence, which I enjoyed very much, a few short stories, and his role as a gadfly on Twitter. I had a pretty good idea what to expect from this 2018 collection and I was not disappointed.
The book contains fourteen stories and one novella called “Under My Roof.” A couple of these tales were misses for me, and a few looked like interesting experiments, engaging for what they attempted. Then there were the ones I liked — or loved — just as stories. I’m going to talk about those in a minute.
“A Howling Dog” and “The Glottal Stop” both explore the extremes of social media and its impact on human behavior. Both stories are well done. Mamatas’s work is always well-written. How you feel about these two stories themselves will probably depend on what you think about human nature already. “Arbeitskraft” is steampunk as only Mamatas could do it; with Friedrich Engels as the viewpoint character, building a giant thinking engine and consorting with android matchgirls in Victorian London. I admired this story.
“The Spook School” follows a woman and her husband to an art museum in Scotland, as they seek out the art work of a select and very strange group of artists. Melissa has an odd experience in front of a painting called The Wassail, and then collapses in the museum. When she revives, she and her Scottish husband discuss it and she minimizes the experience. The story continues on in a deceptively mundane manner until the couple returns to the museum. “The Spook School” is a great example of surrealistic horror, the kind of short piece I’d expect from Caitlín R. Kiernan.
“The People’s Republic of Everywhere and Everything” is a twisty, cold-hearted cyberpunk thriller with an interesting point of view choice. It dips into second-person now and then. It took me a while to see what was happening with that, but Mamatas delivers on it. There is nobody likeable in this heist story, but the twists (and that point of view) kept me reading and I was not disappointed.
Easily my favorite in the book was “North Shore Friday,” where an historic event, CIA experimentation and undocumented immigration all converge. I’m sure that part of the reason I liked this one is because I’m old and I vaguely remember the 1965 power outage on the East Coast. The power outage is part of this story; so is trafficking in refugees from the fascist takeover in Greece, and so is telepathy. I liked the use of different typography to communicate telepathy; I liked the two main characters of the story and I thought it delivered on all levels: character, concept, plot and atmosphere or setting. It’s one I’ll read again just for the enjoyment of it.
“The Great Armored Train” is told in the manner of an updated folktale, set against the early days of the USSR, with Leon Trotsky, in his famous armored train, rolling around the countryside to bring the Red Army to places where the locals are rebelling. Gribov, a soldier, is attacked by a huge gray owl as he steps between train cars; only the owl is a woman, a Tatar. Trotsky is skeptical and conducts the questioning of her himself. At first it seems likely that she is just a human rebel, but she insists she is an owl woman. For Trotsky the underlying issue is fundamental; for him, communism and magic cannot coexist. For him, magic is close to religion, while Marxism is rational.
If she is some kind of mystical or supernatural being, then our cause is lost. If magic is real, then Marxism is not. We may as well go home and light candles by the family icon.
Really, how often to you read a dark fantasy story with Leon Trotsky as a major character? The story fell short for me at the end, because the woman’s motivations for her final actions are not made clear, but the story ends on a beautiful, eerie image, and I loved the prose throughout.
“Tom Silex, Spirit-Smasher” is probably the most accessible story in the book. If you haven’t read Mamatas, you might want to start with this one. Rosa Martinez, who cares for her grandmother, who has dementia, discovers that she might own the rights to the work of a dead pulp writer from the nineteen-fifties. The writer’s work is enjoying a slight resurgence in popularity, and Rosa and her boyfriend Jeremy are meeting with a man who is offering Rosa a really good deal for the rights. Rosa is engaging, the grandmother is depicted in a realistic way, and as the truth begins to come out, Rosa has to make a difficult choice. Rosa and her grandmother are easy to sympathize with, and Jeremy is interesting and well-developed.
“Walking with a Ghost” is a nod to Lovecraft, with another take on information technology.
“Under my Roof” is a long novella with a wonderful concept. It went on too long for me, but I liked the idea. I would have liked a few details (like the telepathy) to be better explained, and I have to caution people — there may be a strong element of fantasy wishful thinking in my appreciation for this tale. The story follows the life of a telepathic little boy as his bright and probably crazy father secedes from the United States and forms his own country — on his city lot. Surreal? Yeah. You’re wondering why the government doesn’t just come in and take care of him, and there is a reason.
If you don’t like experimental prose and a sardonic, acerbic view of human nature, The People’s Republic of Everything will probably not thrill you. I agree with Jana that several of the stories feel like Mamatas was giving his attention to the experimental aspect rather than fleshing out characterization or even giving the plot a bit more tweaking. I enjoyed the stories that created a background world that wasn’t knee-jerk capitalistic, and most of those were successful for me. Even when the stories are at their most personal, like a tale about fatherhood, there is an emotional distance, a coolness, in these works. Still, for me, more of these worked than didn’t and I’m glad I have this collection. It’s a book I’ll go back to.
I wanted to like The People’s Republic of Everything for two main reasons: one, because it deals with a number of ideas I find interesting, and two, because this collection isn’t shy about engaging with controversial things in new and fresh ways. The People’s Republic of Everything wears its politics on its sleeve — something I appreciate, as it lends a keen insight into so many of the topics it seeks to deconstruct or reconstruct in a new way. The reason I won’t be rating this book more highly is because it tells those topical, gut-wrenching, political stories in the bleakest ways. In all honesty, this collection wore me out. It presented thoughts on the world with the least amount of hope. I found that story after story would open with an interesting idea, and close with the worst logical conclusion. It quite frankly made me despair. And perhaps, from one point of view, that speaks to the strength of the writing.
I did have a few specific problems, most pointedly with the opening story in the collection. My initial reading of the story was a shockingly soul-crushing one, and it was only after reading the author’s notes that followed that particular story did I understand the author’s intention was the complete opposite of my reading of the text. As a reader, authorial intent is an interesting thing, but for me what a reader finds in a story is more important – and in this case, I was on one hand relieved to find the author didn’t intend my reading of the story, but on the other I was disappointed because the story, to me, didn’t align with what the author was saying it meant.
Taken all together, it’s a collection with a certain point of view. I can even think of a few friends who I will recommend it to. But speaking for myself as a reader and a reviewer, this collection was a miss for me. There is already so much to despair about in the world — I don’t enjoy reading about how it could be even worse.