Works of experimental fiction often aren’t anything-goes affairs so much as they are exercises in restraint. Writers of the Oulipo school fuss over adding or removing letters; Proppian stories restrict themselves to common fairy-tale motifs. Fun as such fiction can be to think about, on the page it often has the sterility of a lab coat. Doesn’t good fiction suffer enough demands without thrusting more upon it?
That in mind, the 10 stories in Charles Baxter’s new collection, “There’s Something I Want You to Do,” at first seem forbiddingly overdetermined. Half take their titles from virtues (bravery, chastity), and half vices (lust, sloth), and each includes a character uttering the title phrase. The plots echo the titles: The narrator of “Loyalty” must decide what he owes to his returned ex-wife, for instance, while a doctor in “Sloth” is sluggish and overweight.
Baxter isn’t slavishly dedicated to his organizing conceit, though, and he’s not interested in pat lectures on each of his chosen topics. Indeed, the stories typically reveal the freewheeling imagination of Baxter’s best stories (collected in 2012’s “Gryphon”), even if the overall mood is somber. In “Sloth,” the doctor makes regular retreats from the demands of pediatrics to visit Minneapolis’ Stone Arch Bridge, where he talks to “hallucinatory visitors.” In this case it’s the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock, delivering melancholy intonations. “Now nothing happens next,” he laments of the afterlife. The living, however bad they have it, have it better.
And we do have it pretty rough down here. In “Charity,” a man seeks out his lost boyfriend who’s succumbed to painkiller addiction, and his actions are tests of what qualifies as kindness, and whether it’s fair to harm one person in the name of healing another. In “Avarice,” the mother of the man in “Loyalty” confesses to an event that’s left her with a long-hidden murderous fury. “I found that black coal in my soul, and it burned fiercely,” she thinks. “I loved having it there.”
Baxter can’t entirely shake the stiffness out of his concept: “Forbearance” mainly turns on a woman struggling to translate a poem, and “Vanity” is a sketch of an airplane conversation between a man and a Holocaust survivor. But read as mood pieces, they each do what Baxter’s fiction is best at — evoke the strangeness of the everyday, undermining our best efforts to apply structure to it. A comment from a friend of the translator suggests the frustration that these characters all navigate, however they behave: “Things are not translating? Sometimes they do not. Sometimes they stubbornly stay what they are.”
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix.