BOOK REVIEW: UnAmerican Activities by James Miller
Initially put off by the name given to this book, allergic as I am to “urgent” takedowns on the American experience, it was with a smirking relief that I made my way through the grease of its pages, its sizzlingly American un-American activities.
It didn’t take long. I was engaged with the book from the point of the opening gambit that ties the collection together. It’s the book’s greatest trick, this “Unprologue”, a quasi explanation of what we’re about to read, but actually the book’s most important story. I couldn’t help but nod at where it was taking us. Perhaps it was the first page’s reflections on South London that had me on side. The false authorial note is not a new trick, after all, but it’s employed cutely enough here. And besides, in the email exchange that the author tells us these stories are extracted from, Miller plants a seed which bursts through the surface of every story to follow in what is, de facto, a novel.
The short story collection that also works as a novel. Never easy to pull off, but often a rewarding read. There’s something benevolent about this format that offers the reader the opportunity to dip in and out as they please. It’s immersive, yes, and that’s all the rage, ahah, but it’s also fun. So fun. It makes fun of fun. There are stories about zombie cocks. It’s that fun. And for those susceptible to intrigue, there’s enough left unexplained – something left out there – to consider this a page-turner, if not an anxiety-inducer.
“I do remember something in the news a few weeks back about an outbreak of a mysterious illness up there – Fox got all excited for a day or two that it might be Ebola – but I don’t know what happened to the story. It disappeared, like stories do. Nothing really seems to connect or continue anymore – it’s like things start and things finish and other stuff happens in between and none of it makes sense.”
Still, some of the narrative voices didn’t resonate with me as much as the fun and intrigue did. I found a couple of them difficult get along with and, as is so often the case with short stories, by the time I was on board with the narrator, their tale came to an end. To be specific, the characters written as cartoons are a challenge. An English professor in ‘Hope’s End’ being the main culprit. Surely a touch of caricaturing in a book with zombie cocks that actively seeks to send up American pop culture, in particular TV culture, is entirely appropriate, you say? Perhaps so, but the book’s kaleidoscopic freak show is at its most effective when the person telling us about it all is plainly relatable. This is put into great effect in ‘Eat My Face’, ‘Exploding Zombie Cock’, and ‘The Kiss of Nephilim’, which, perhaps by no coincidence, were the collection’s more engaging reads.
Indeed, ‘The Kiss of Nephilim’ was my favourite of the short tales. Ludicrous and believable (that’s right), we get to hang out with Steven who explains that he’s a vampire and the tale offers several humorous moments. The scenes are relayed so thoughtfully, and the take on what day-to-day vampirism looks like conveyed so succinctly, it’s a giggling joy to read. For instance, Steven has a neck feed on Colin (the human goth ferrying our vampiric protagonist to sanctuary) and notices that his dinner “sinks back in his seat, only the white of his eyes visible,” before adding, “I also see that he has his cock out and is frantically pulling at himself. Urgh, I should have known he’d be one of those types.”
The story is more than that though. It’s one of the best short stories I’ve read this year and, even had the surrounding stories been subpar, reading the collection in its entirety for this one story would have been worth it alone. Thankfully there are other short stories here that approach the same level, ‘Clicks and Hits’, which picks up from where ‘The Kiss of Nephilim’ left off, is a very welcome appendage, and the final story, a sort of yurt infested burlesque, just about manages to avoid being an in-joke for authors and is funny and original in its own right.
The book’s angle, Miller’s third, is that it’s hard to see an apocalypse through the fog of a nation in perennial cultural decline, constantly on the brink of a natural disaster. What sets it apart from the “urgent” takedowns is that James Miller is clearly in a relationship with America, a complex one. He paints it as faithfully as we would a sibling, and, owing to that, UnAmerican Activities is an engaging read in lieu of being an urgent one. It’s also the sort of book so difficult to pin down to any one genre that it’s practically cat shit to publishers, so credit to indie publisher Dodo Ink for giving it a home.
Miller’s collection is a triumph of fucked up fiction. It’s crude, unstable, and buoyant with underlying messages that you can opt in or out of at your pleasure. The line between homage to American TV and mimicking American TV is at times straddled recklessly, but the greater scope here is that if you can’t yet turn your attention elsewhere, this is a pleasantly dark addition to Americana.
UnAmerican Activities can be pre-ordered directly from Dodo Ink here