Reviewed by Jerry Levy
In the cubed-shaped Bizarro world of the chalk-faced Superman, up is down, ugly is beautiful, and it is a crime to make anything perfect; in other words, everything is the opposite from what might be expected on Earth. Seemingly, this is the world of Jordan Moffatt’s U if for Upside-Down House, a collection of twenty-seven short (very short) stories. Here we find a house that without explanation has somehow flipped and now rests on its roof (thankfully it has a flat roof!), pop-up shops that miraculously manifest through sheer imagination, a garden slug that takes a protagonist on a road trip, a dog that talks like he’s Confucius, a Chief of Police who doesn’t know the name of the officer that accompanies him to oust a falcon out of a supermarket. Bizarre. And yet, there are kernels of wisdom inherent in many of the stories. Life lessons to be gleaned. One only needs to be willing to peer beyond the distorted lens that twists the tales into Surrealist-type archetypes seen in Salvador Dali paintings, for meaning. For instance, in "I Think my Philosophy Professor Is the Hamburglar," a Philosophy Professor who teaches Nietzche and Wittenstein and Heidegger, has arrived at the conclusion that by eating a hamburger that he’s stolen from MacDonald’s, he becomes ten minutes younger. So he steals a lot of them and reverses the aging process. His name? Hamilton B. Urglar. Of course. And it’s not just eating the hamburgers that transform the prof into a younger life – it’s the stealing of the hamburgers that does it. The unethical part. Here’s the exchange between the prof. and his student who eventually finds him out:
Hamilton B. Urglar: “I aged naturally for thirty years. I was living a life of virtue. But then something happened that you might not understand: I got old. And when you get old, you’re willing to give up your ideals to be young again.”
Student: “You’re confusing living young forever with living forever young…”
As shown in this and other stories ("The Only Customers at My Brewpub Are Ghouls" comes to mind, where the main character opens a craft brewpub near a haunted cemetery and learns a valuable lesson about remaining true to one’s ideals from the ghouls who frequent it), Moffatt has an uncanny ability to distill big ideas into simple and short narratives. His fiction has elements of Rivka Galchen’s and Ottessa Moshfegh’s works.
The writing is crystal-clear, and the storytelling fresh and succinct. Humour abounds. Everything is told in first-person, which lends consistency to the collection. One gets the sense that Moffatt feels a lot of joy in playing with ideas, words and language. He occasionally eschews basic rules of punctuation and uses run-on sentences that go on and on like the Energizer Bunny, an idiosyncratic tool to exemplify the manic state of characters. It works.
The stories, as mentioned, are short. Vignettes of a sort. The characters step into the spotlight for a very brief time and then retreat, leaving it up to the reader to infer who they are and what they’re about. This is always an issue with this type of fiction: for those who want deep character development, even a more traditional type of story, these tales would probably not suffice. Similarly, they might not be particularly enjoyed by anyone who prefers not to suspend their belief system (we’re talking about bears who eat pizza and party with a protagonist, a meteorite sent to Earth to gather secrets from anyone who finds it…). But if readers want to look beyond these things and simply enjoy the stories for what they are, perhaps even attempt to answer a fundamental question like, what is this all about?, they will find untold gems in the collection.
It will be interesting to see what Jordan Moffatt’s next work will be. He has all the tools to write good prose, longer works perhaps, and become a valued member of the Can-Lit scene for many years to come.
U is for Upside-Down House is published by Applebeard Editions.