The characters at the center of Simon Van Booy's "Tales of Accidental Genius" would probably make for an awkward party. They include an acclaimed Chinese filmmaker, a couple in their 40s still grappling with events earlier in their marriage, a young man working in a pet store, a magician and a retired English bodyguard. These aren't characters with a lot in common; the same can be said for the people they encounter over the course of the stories contained in this book. Van Booy's recent novel "The Illusion of Separateness" (as the title might suggest) took a number of disparate plot threads and gradually brought them together toward a moving conclusion. Here, too, there's a relative unity to these stories, despite their wide range of settings.
Many of these stories concern themselves with characters providing unlikely assistance to others. Eric, the central character of "A Slow and Deliberate Disappearance," finds his calling working as a magician for an audience of elderly people who have dementia. The collection's first story, "The Menace of Mile End," tracks the daily routine of a solitary man in a London neighborhood, who gradually re-enters the world when he comes to the assistance of one of his neighbors. Here and elsewhere in the book, Van Booy precisely chronicles the meticulous routines of solitary men; whether in London, China or upstate New York, he finds the commonality in the everyday and the wounded.
Van Booy isn't shy about allowing bad things to happen to his characters: economic uncertainty, romantic failure and death play roles in many of these stories. The collection's second story, "The Goldfish," is about the bond that forms between an old man and a young pet store employee; the former seeks help for an ailing goldfish, and the latter realizes just how tenuous this man's foothold in the land of the functional is.
There is a deep and abiding humanism to these stories: people assisting others because the alternative is too grim to contemplate. The longest story in the book, "Golden Helper II," is essentially a long fable that reminds readers of the importance of charity. For some writers, sentimentality is something to be avoided, but Van Booy is much more willing to embrace it, albeit with a hard-fought justification. For all of the globe-trotting and experiments in storytelling found here, there's also a very human core to these stories — a humanistic reminder of the connections we all share.
Tobias Carroll is managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn.