A review of Dead Aquarium by Caleb Michael Sarvis

Reviewed by Jack Messenger

Dead Aquarium
by Caleb Michael Sarvis
Mastadon Publishing
ISBN 9781732009127, Paperback, 180 pages, March 2019

In an era of flash and twitter fiction, we are apt to forget that short is not new, and that literary heritage includes the aphorism and the pensée as much as it does the triple-decker novel and the epic poem. Kafka’s stories, for example, often extend for no more than a paragraph or two, while much Classical myth and fable is similarly concise. Motivations and contexts change with the times, however. The subtitle to Dead Aquarium – ‘i don’t have the stamina for that kind of faith’ – references the lower-case exhaustion and peculiar ennui that overcome contemporary culture when confronted with the grand, upper-case questions about Identity and Destiny, Value and Extinction that stalk us through the wind-strewn detritus of the back alley and the shopping mall.

The title page to Dead Aquarium tells us it comprises ‘stories and [a] novella,’ but this descriptive assertion can hardly be taken at face value. Dead Aquarium is divided into sections entitled ‘Mundane’, ‘Supra-Terrestrial’, ‘(Loon)acy’ (whose one entry is the subdivided novella called ‘Emerson’) and ‘Sublime’. This structural organization stresses the interrelatedness of all the pieces, whose splintered arrangement into short sections snubs venerable literary conventions while also managing to be wittily self-serving. This, together with its narrow field of focus, makes Dead Aquarium a challenging book to read. There is much to admire, much to question and to think about.

Unlike the fetid and static water evoked by its title, the writing in Dead Aquarium is amazingly fluid and lucid; and it flows, flows easily and effortlessly, so that there is not a single obstruction or blockage, not one awkward, clumsy boulder of a sentence to interrupt the easy procession of prose. It really is a remarkable achievement and a wonderful asset (with one major reservation, outlined below), the greatest that Dead Aquarium has to offer, which is otherwise concerned with absences rather than possessions.

Broadly understood, absences of one kind or another are a recurring feature of the collection. For instance, the first story, ‘Sinking Moments,’ is about the surprises of solitude in the absence of parents and lovers. The burials in ‘Goose Island’ and ‘Scoop Carry Dump Repeat’ are another kind of absence. ‘An Unfaded Black’ has other absences: a tooth, a forearm, a son, and a search for an image:

When Miles told his grandpa he’d like a cell phone for his birthday, his grandfather scoffed at the idea and said, ‘You need to learn how to be alone.’ But that was the point, Miles had thought. With a cell phone, the internet, he could always be alone. Instead, he was stuck at the dining room table with ‘Dying Sly.’

‘Gastropod’ unravels in the shadow of Hurricane Irma; ‘Terra’ is post-hurricane and the most interesting piece in the collection. A makeshift community is formed in the aftermath of destruction when neighbours and strangers coalesce around the only functioning television set to watch a game of football, eating pizza and drinking beer. Yet, amid this unexpected and casual conviviality, there is absence, for the owner of the TV has recently divorced and still has the habit of phoning his ex-wife to ask where she stored the remote.

Dead Aquarium is also about interruptions, thematically and structurally. One quickly discovers that Dead Aquarium is not a book to be read without interruptions. Indeed, it requires them, which is why it factors in so many – sections, subheadings, white spaces – as well as short short stories. These features are an indication that the writing will not comfortably expand or sustain concentration, or support anything above a few pages (I have to confess I felt compelled to skim the final sections of the novella). ‘Emerson’ – the novella – has fish tanks everywhere: in bars, in shops, as architectural elements of store fronts and bridges. Divided into short sections (as if readers cannot be trusted to cope with anything more demanding), its prose finds refuge in absurdity and a kind of resigned flippancy, often conveyed in extremely short sentences with little variation. In ‘Vertical Leapland,’ to take another example, sentences of around six stresses abound, and the few longer sentences are broken into similarly short clauses. This relentless invariant flow is only palatable in small doses.

Or so it seems to me. I wonder if Caleb Michael Sarvis has a novel in the works and what it might look like. Of course, the novel and the short story are two different dinosaurs, and neither is superior to the other. Many brilliant writers have specialized in the shorter form and made it their own; either way, they have required a lot more than six beats to the bar to sustain their brilliance.

Context is particularly important in assessing/appreciating Dead Aquarium. Perhaps it really is necessary to be American, even Floridian, and young to regard the book as an uninterrupted success. Someone from a different demographic may be puzzled by its rejection of a wider moral or political context, its absence of engagement, its refusal of genuine feeling, its comfort in denial, intellectual retreat and warped realities. When a culture is hell-bent on cruising to oblivion, brand names and Despicable Me will only take us so far, and invariably in the wrong direction. Dead Aquarium is an interesting and thought-provoking collection by an immensely talented writer – and a stepping-stone, surely, to greater things.

About the reviewer: Jack Messenger is a writer and reviewer based in Nottingham, UK. Find out more about him at jackmessengerwriter.com