Sometimes, we are strangers in our own skin. Life becomes disorienting, and before we have a chance to change its trajectory, we look around and have no idea how we landed where we did. Brad Watson’s collection of short stories, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, ache with confusion and loneliness, and the result is akin to a lucid dream. Each of his stories recall the recent past, a pre-internet stillness that amplifies his characters’ disconnect. While I enjoyed this collection, I finished with some uncertainty over what I’d just read. Not every story stuck with me, but the ones that did have made me curious to seek out Watson’s other work.
I know that I’m “supposed” to judge a book on the writing alone, but I feel a certain kinship when the author hails from an oft-ignored state. Brad Watson currently lives in Wyoming, a state that is even more ignored than Montana. Hell, here in Montana, we even try to claim Yellowstone National Park as our own, even though only a fraction of it resides on our side of the border. When I think of Wyoming, I think of long, straight and endless highways. I think of wind. I think of nothingness, and I think of that time a Wyoming Highway Patrolman was rude to a friend of mine, saying, “I know they do things different in Montana…” Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to live in a place that, to non-residents, is just a stretch of land on the way to somewhere else. To have book filled with characters that struggle with their discontent and feelings of standing apart makes sense, when you think about it.
Sometimes I looked into windows at night, but only at ordinary things. People eating supper, or watching television. No undressing or showers or such. I only wanted to experience the mystery of seeing things as they were when I essentially did not exist to alter them. If you were quiet and still, it was almost as if you weren’t there. It was like being a ghost, curious about the visible world and the creatures in it. As if you were dreaming it, and not part of the dream but there somehow, unquestioned or unknown.
— from “Alamo Plaza”
(The above sentiment could very well be said about the act of writing, when the going is good and the words just happen, seemingly on their own.)
Don’t mistake the author’s locale for the stories’ settings; so many have the deep, saturating humidity of the American South. Palmetto trees, steadfast religion, the Mississippi Coast, and damp moments lying in the grass — they all make appearances, and you can smell the salt air. Other stories could occur anywhere, as the gravity lies not in the location, but in the characters themselves.
Bad decisions arrive in full force, decisions made by people who often know better but cannot stop their momentum. In “Vacuum,” three brothers try and mostly fail to make their depressed mother feel better, and in “Terrible Argument,” a couple cannot stop themselves from fighting and it stresses their already fragile dog. In “Visitation,” Loomis cannot grasp how his life has come to the point where he has to fly to California every three weeks to visit his son. Why, every day, he cannot shake the feeling that the rest of the world is not meant for him.
Loomis had never believe that line about the quality of despair being that it was unaware of it being despair. He’d been painfully aware of his own despair for most of his life. Most of his troubles had come from attempts to deny the essential hopelessness in his nature. To believe in the viability of nothing, finally, was socially unacceptable, and he had tried to adapt, to pass as a believer, a hoper. He had taken prescription medicine, engaged in periods of vigorous, cleansing exercise, declared his satisfaction with any number of fatuous jobs and foolish relationships. Then one day he’d decided that he should marry, have a child and he told himself that if one was open-minded these things could lead to a kind of contentment, if not to exuberant happiness. That’s why Loomis was in the fix he was in now.
Readers prone to depression/anxiety may nod knowingly during many of the stories, and in the wrong (right?) mood, they are effective enough to exacerbate those feelings. I suppose that’s a sign of a good writing, however detrimental.
My favorite portion of the book was the title story, which is really more of a novella in length. “Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives” is dreamy, disorienting and baked in the heat of summer. Set some time in the sixties, a teenage couple get married in secret, figuring that it’s best to have secured an apartment and have a plan for their life together before telling their parents that she’s pregnant. And then, things get a little strange:
Something woke me up a few hours later I saw I’d left a light on in the living room, so I shuffled in there to turn it off. That’s when I saw the man and woman sitting on our sofa. They wore identical pairs of white cotton pajamas and looked sleep-rumpled, and older, in their forties or fifties. They looked familiar, though I couldn’t say I’d ever seen them before. I didn’t know them, that’s for sure. A rush of fear went through me. My scalp prickled, I felt myself shrink up in my boxers. I kind of hunched over, ready to run or fight. But then the woman raised her eyebrows like she’d forgotten something, and waved a hand at me, as if passing something before my vision, and I felt myself relax somehow.
“Who are you?” I said.
The man and woman just sat there smiling at me.
I don’t exactly know how to describe this collection accurately, or what to say about each individual story. I know that I liked it — I didn’t love every offering, but I did not dislike any of it. Bits of each story floated about my head long after reading them, though I wasn’t always sure of their source, a side effect of reading before bed, I think. The sadness and confusion feel very real amidst surreal situations, and so in that way, the cover blurb comparison of Flannery O’Connor meets David Lynch is apt. Watson respects and roots for each of his characters deeply, and it’s a lovely thing.
(On a related note: Largehearted Boy has a playlist to go with Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, and it’s quite good. Do take a gander.)
I received this book from W.W. Norton for review purposes. I thank them for the gesture, and will continue to be fair in my reviews.