American media historian, author, and professor emeritus at Boston College, Michael C. Keith strikes a humorous note as he dwells on death and the human condition in this comical, quasi-philosophical collection of microfiction. Keith, the author of nearly two dozen books on electronic media, including The Radio Station (a widely used textbook) and Waves of Rancor (featured on President Clinton’s 1999 holiday reading list), has also written a notable memoir that was praised by Larry King and Augusten Burroughs. Over the past decade, he has primarily focused on speculative fiction, frequently contributing to the Lowestoft Chronicle and other literary magazines. He has also authored a young adult novel and fourteen story collections. His latest, Let Us Now Speak of Extinction, is an epic assortment of diverse and weighty topics that have been whittled down to brilliant, bite-sized narratives.
Containing over two hundred and thirty exceedingly short works of fiction, with very few exceeding a page in length and most no longer than a paragraph, Keith consistently manages to make each story distinctive and fully formed. He also delights in poking fun at death and human suffering, injecting his pieces with a virulent strain of dark humor.
The opening story, “The Silver Lining,” sets the tone for the collection. Here, a new retiree whose wife is in the final stage of terminal cancer seeks positivity in a gloomy situation, taking comfort in a twenty-five dollar gift certificate for Ruby Tuesday. Similarly, in “Condolence Pastry,” a wife in mourning sees the bright side in her husband’s passing: “Finally, it dawned on her that she could eat all of the sweets she wanted now that her killjoy husband was no longer around to stop her.”
As with many of the other stories, the writing is deliberately provocative, frequently questioning behaviors, amplifying baser thoughts, and looking at things from a skewed perspective. In “Coping Behavior,” for example, a man questions the actions of his work colleague’s wife when he sees her at a movie theater soon after her husband’s heart attack. He wonders if she should be at the movies, appalled she is not at the hospital instead.
This question of what is and isn’t appropriate behavior is a recurring theme. The mother in “Empathy” seems unmoved after learning about the shocking death of her neighbor’s young daughter, and in “Oblivious,” a man journeying to the mall is unaffected by the horrific, bloody scenes around him in the wake of a terrorist attack. “There were body parts all over the place,” writes Keith. “Like arms and legs, even a head.” Shocking and absurd, Keith revels in contrasting the tragic setting with a remarkably indifferent protagonist.
Arguably, the more absurd the story, the more comical the author’s writing becomes. Daft tales like “A Process of Elimination,” “Nietzsche said, ‘Without music, life would be a mistake,’” and “Downsizing” offer some of the funniest moments. In the first story, a community turns to violence in an effort to eliminate the unidentified killer among them, and in the next, a mortician dances with the corpses to stave off depression. In the latter, a stunt driver annoys his pit crew by failing to “break his old record in which he’d stopped just 18 inches shy of the 425-foot drop-off to the canyon floor” and plummets to his death.
Unsurprisingly, particularly given this is a collection with well over two hundred stories, topics and narrators vary greatly, as do tone and style. What is surprising is that the author can pack so much humor into a volume of work where the grim, unifying themes are death and mortality. Time and again, he shows that humor can be found in just about any situation—even in a prison cell on death row. In “Accessory,” the convicted murderer, Gerald, protests his innocence, claiming:
If his friend hadn’t loaned him a gun with a hair trigger, he wouldn’t be in this terrible situation. He felt it was a gross injustice to execute him because the goddamn .38 had a mind of its own.
Nestled between the dryly amusing and the wildly comical are a small number of moving stories. None more poignant than the bittersweet “Who’s Crying Now?” Unwilling to cry in front of his wife because he does not want to be thought of as “weak and unmanly,” eventually tragedy forces one character to show his emotion: “The years passed without her husband being able to weep in front of her, and then it finally happened . . . as her body was being removed to the funeral home.”
Let Us Now Speak of Extinction marks an unexpected but welcome departure for Keith from his usual compendiums of supernatural fiction. Absurd, provocative, philosophical, and idiosyncratic, these markedly varied, darkly amusing pieces of condensed prose are as engrossing and satisfying as they are surprising and thought-provoking.
About the Reviewer
Nicholas Litchfield is the founding editor of the literary magazine Lowestoft Chronicle, author of the suspense novel Swampjack Virus, and editor of eight literary anthologies. He has worked in various countries as a tabloid journalist, librarian, and media researcher. He writes regularly for the Colorado Review, and his book reviews for the Lancashire Post are syndicated to twenty newspapers across the UK. He lives in western New York.