Review of Dr.
King’s Refrigerator, And Other Bedtime Stories, by Charles Johnson
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/11/08
In his long career, American novelist Charles Johnson has published three collections of short stories. His first, The Sorceror’s Apprentice, in 1977, was the best. Soulcatcher And Other Stories, in 1998, was solid, if unspectacular, while this third collection, released by Scribner’s in 2005, is by far the weakest. Granted, compared to the usual dreck that is released in short story collections, it’s a passable, solid offering; but imagine if Mozart had written a hit song for a Boy Band, and you will see the drastic fall from heights I am referencing. While I am averse to the criticism of intent, wherein one critiques claims for a work rather than the work, the genesis of a book can play a great deal of a role in its eventual success or failure, and this is the case in comparing Johnson’s three collections.
The Sorceror’s Apprentice was an early work, when Johnson still had not primarily gotten known as a novelist, and seemed to really indulge the craft of short story writing. One senses that these were stories he had been working on for a long time. Think of how many rock bands have a first album that’s great, because they’ve spent years on the road perfecting their tunes. Then they hurry up and put out a second album that’s garbage. Well, when Johnson released Soulcatcher, twenty-one years later, that was not an issue, but thosee tales did not stem from Johnson’s own artistic desire, rather a request he had to write a dozen short stories, in different forms and formats, as a companion book to a PBS television series. And it shows, for while the best of those tales are good, the rest seem to be pre-fabricated form with random storytelling squirted in to fit a mold. Then we come to his latest collection, and these seem to be a rather haphazard assortment of unrelated tales (rather than a real collection or book) that were culled from a variety of sources, and also written on request for assorted occasions. Ask yourself, how many Occasional poems or songs really turn out well? Ditto for these tales. They simply never evolve naturally or organically from their conceptions nor conceits.
Again, on a relative level, these stories are still better than the clichéd crap of a T.C. Boyle or the deliterate garbage of a David Foster Wallace, but does a writer who has provided great art really deserve comparison to the worst of the Lowest Common Denominator? I think not, and compared to, say, the Anton Chekhovs, or Irwin Shaws, or even underrated short story writers like Doris Lessing or Chester Himes, neither this book nor Johnson’s canon of short fiction holds up well. It is also worth noting that often people cannot transcend their subgenres. Many great poets simply cannot write effective prose- think of Walt Whitman or Sylvia Plath. The reverse is true, as well. The ‘poetry’ of Eugene O’Neill or Tennesee Williams is staggeringly bad. Even Thomas Hardy, who is often cited as a published example of a writer who mastered poetry and prose, is really a prose writer whose poetry- aside from a dozen solid poems, is woefully inane. In prose, the short and long fiction divide is also a reality, and I think that detail and the slower development of character and revelation of plot and motive is where Johnson’s storytelling gifts lie. Too many of these short stories are simply ‘gimmick tales;’ one note affairs that are rather cardboard in conception and execution.
The first story, Sweet Dreams, is a solid tale, albeit it a gimmick one that would be right at home on the old The Twilight Zone television series. It is about how, post-9/11, the government set up a new taxation scheme for dreaming and creativity. A man is audited, exasperates over his dilemma, as a faceless bureaucrat smugly chides him. Cultural Relativity is a fairy tale that plays off of the old Princess and the Frog narrative, save for casting it anew in an African light, as an American falls for the scion of an African nation’s leader. Again, it’s a gimmick tale used to highlight the differences of American and African blacks, but it does not go anywhere. I recently read a tale by Chester Himes, Dirty Deceivers, about two blacks who marry, passing for white, feign racism, then discover they are both black, and divorce, because they lied to each other. It too had structural problems and was a bit of a gimmick, but it had more depth than Johnson’s tale, and did not have to resort to Aesopian tropes to make its points.
The titular tale, Dr. King’s Refrigerator, is a step up from the first pair of tales. It, too, is a one note affair, but rather than being gimmicky, it is an epiphanic story of a pre-famous Martin Luther King, Jr. digging about his fridge for a late night snack, as he struggles to find a subject for his Sunday sermon, only to encounter some food his wife has prepared for a gathering the next day. There, the minister makes all sorts of connections- due to the fact that many of the foods come from all over the globe, and he feels more tied to all ( a Buddhist invasion of the Baptist ideals), including his own forebears in the ministry. Johnson writes:
Then he slowly put the apple down, feeling not so much hunger now as a profound indebtedness and thanksgiving- to everyone and everything in Creation.
Yet, while a solid tale from a writing student, one would want more from someone with Johnson’s skills. Instead of using the narrative form to leave an interesting short film in our minds, we are left with photographs, and ones that are not particularly compelling. In the above excerpt, a moment of King’s silence as he merely looked at the fruit would have said all that that line does. Too often, the old ‘show, don’t tell’ maxim is used by bad MFA didacts to stifle creative use of monologues or the like, but here is an example where that apothegm should have been followed. The same is true for most of the book, as Johnson lays far too much at his readers’ feet, so that they are not drawn into the tales, and forced to become co-creators in the process of reading. In that way, the tales in the book are all told in varying degrees of hermesis from the reader.
The Gift Of The Osuo is a longer story, and follows an African king- of the fictional African tribe, the Allmuseri, who were introduced in his collection The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and were key in Middle Passage, who is granted a magical piece of chalk by some of his wizards, and this allows him to draw anything and make it come to life. The things he draws resemble ‘not the Real, but the Real transfigured,’ and the king intends to put it to good use, helping his people and maintaining peace with his enemies. Unfortunately, despite his good intentions, things go horribly wrong. His family and tribe are beaten and sold into slavery to Europeans by their enemies, and just when he is thinking all is lost, it turns out to be a dream, and the king ends up even warier of the conjuror’s powers. While this tale certainly offers the most meat, there seems to be far too much intellectualizing going on. Not that Africans, pre-Middle Passage, were not capable of philosophy, but the philosophy is far too modern. To even have Dark Ages Europeans speaking of such would be out of place. There are also far too many references to modern science, as if Johnson was torn between making this a modern tale, or going into Brothers Grimm territory. Instead of choosing, he sat on the fence and the tale has neither choice’s power, but both of their weaknesses.
Executive Decision is a fully modern tale about the head of a corporation who agonizes over whether to hire a white female or a black male for a promotion in the company. Will he be considered a racist or a misogynist for his choice? While the tale does some good at dramatizing the dilemma, there is a page or two’s digression into the quoting of statistics, which shows the tale’s didacticism too much, and makes the lead character seem too much of a wishy-washy indecisive twit. Eventually, the black male is hired- despite the woman’s superior skills, and the question is has race trumped sex, or vice versa? Has the guy been hired because he’s a guy, and the old boys network is still intact, or because he’s black, and PC reigns anew. A bit more on the two choices, and sketching them as real people would have served the tale more. As it is, one simply does not sympathize with the boss who is making the decision because the two candidates are little more than resumes, not characters. That, and the fact that the boss allows his black underling, possibly his father’s lover, make the decision, utterly abnegates any real world power the tale’s end might have had.
Better Than Counting Sheep is a brief tale that goes nowhere and is a one note tale that posits that sitting in an academic committee meeting can cure insomnia. It reminds me of some of the worst sorts of one dimensional ‘ain’t I funny?’ stories from Sherman Alexie. The Queen And The Philosopher deals with the Queen of Sweden’s obsessions with the philosopher Rene Descartes, and her taunting his famous line, ‘I think therefore I am.’ She believes he has presumed too much in his claim that the I is a given. But, before the philosopher can retort, he takes ill and dies. The tale is a bit of a one note, a What If? proposition, but it is a solid tale, narratively if not in terms of characterization, and told from the point of view of Descartes’ assistant. The last story, Kwoon, deals with the goings on at a Chicago area martial arts school, called a kwoon, but it is a rather limp tale about ‘self-discovery’ that is a poor way to end the book. In it, the lead character basically learns about himself by getting his ass whupped in a fight. Despite being a much anthologized and lauded story, it is not up to par with the best in this book, much less Johnson’s better tales from The Sorceror’s Apprentice.
Even if one tries to find mitigation of these simplistic stories in the book’s subtitle, there is little to be had, as- in terms of depth, they do not rise to the depths that the fables and fairy tales of yore held, where much subtext and psychologically archetypal depth was limned. There simply is no subtlety in these tales, and little to entice a second reading. Johnson has a point to make, and he hammers them home- which fits in nicely with my belief that, since these were made to order stories, they have made to order messages. There are also too many affectations- such as the quoting of statistics, or the use of tired tropes like a tale’s all being a dream in the end, to lift this collection up from merely being passable to anything approaching the transcendent. For those who are seeking out Johnson’s work, as recommended by others, pass on this book, or you may likely never believe that he is capable of transcendent prose. Seek out and read any of his novels, but most especially start with Oxherding Tale, as it is the sine qua non of Johnsonian thought, and one of the best books ever published in America. This work is unfortunately pedestrian, at best- a 65-70 on a scale of 100. Solid for a beginner, but a great disappointment for fans of his novels that will be read in a century or more.
Again, I have to pin the failing on the fact that none of these tales seems to have been a thing that emerged from an artistic necessity to divulge something, but a request to do so. Hence, the book’s tales often seem like coloring inside the lines, rather than a picture drawn from the gut. The structure is often anomic, the tales lack any demiurge, and their flatness reveals a formulaic bent, rather than an artist at the top of his game, bending the art to his needs by sheer force of talent and will. Simply taking a stance- that one is not PC, or one has depth, is not enough. The message, if there is going to be simply one, as a bedtime story implies and entails, has to essentially explicated within the story, not merely explicated as the story. Thus, Dr. King’s Refrigerator, And Other Bedtime Stories stands as the sort of middle ground work that artists often produce in between greater works, as a salve to a public that awaits something better coming. Here’s hoping that the next book from Johnson will be just such a work, on the order of his greatest novels. This collection, however, we fans can rationalize as….ah, perchance to dream! gone wrong.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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