Literary murder is often committed objectively; the act unfolds on the pages while the reader stands like a witness looking on in horror. T.C. Boyle’s new short story anthology, “After the Plague,” commits murder introspectively. These stories put the reader directly inside the minds of killers. You watch the whole of each act unfold through their eyes while listening to their inner monologue conjure up a warped rationalism for the murder that they are committing.
These are not warm and fuzzy bedtime stories. These tales leave a reader with an uncomfortable awareness of the brutality of the world. Americans are aware of that fact already, and Mr.Boyle’s dark tome couldn’t have come at a worse time.
However, despite their lack of comforting qualities, these stories are sharply written investigations into the psyches of those who commit violent acts. Even without the backdrop of terrorism and violence this book is scary as hell.
In most of the stories there is one central character who narrates a first-person account of the world around him or her. These are likeable people with seemingly rational thoughts. Suddenly a skewered perspective begins to dominate the monologue. These characters are thoroughly convinced that they are doing the right thing by killing others. Their words stay in your head like a bad song.
The tales are made much more disturbing by the creepy way they echo actual media events. “The Love of My Life” is about two preppy honor-student high-school seniors, China and Jeremy, who claim to be endlessly and truly in love. That vow comes into question, however, when China gets pregnant and they decide to keep it a secret. The motel room delivery scene and murder of the child all unfold in Jeremy’s grizzly flashbacks. In “Killing Babies” the violence between pro-life activists and abortion doctors is explored with haunting results.
But the most terrifying moments of the book are the ones that creep the closest to home. In “She Wasn’t Soft,” a female tri-athlete gets date-raped by her boyfriend because he’s jealous of what great physical shape she’s in. Later, in “Friendly Skies,” there is a sickeningly real description of an air-rage incident and plane crash.
This book may be one of the most disturbing items on the shelf, but Boyle cannot be called a bad writer. In fact, he’s quite prolific with an impressive 13 novels to his name. The problem is that he’s almost too good at creating realism. When he turns that power on investigating the genesis of human violence and hatred the result is nightmarish.
This foray into the methods of madness isn’t new to Boyle; in 1998 he wrote “Riven Rock.” This was a turn-of-the-century historical novel about a wealthy socialite who goes insane. But Boyle also wrote a mock-Victorian novel, “Water Music,” in 1982. He is probably best known for writing the novel “The Road to Wellville,” which was made into a popular film in 1993.
Despite the bad timing and disturbing themes, “After The Plague” is a masterpiece of psychological horror writing. A horrific first-person account of the terror and sadness of air rage, teenage pregnancies and date rape makes this book the “Bell Jar” of our times.