Posted by: GravatarWon'tDeleteMyAccount | August 3, 2008

John Kessel: The Baum Plan for Financial Independence

While reading John Kessel’s latest collection of short stories there are two things that will strike you: the first is the feeling of being on familiar ground; the second is the feeling of distance, even isolation, that accompanies most of the fourteen tales. And perhaps that, too, will be familiar.

The first relies on the dozens of allusions to other works — references that seem to take little heed of genre boundaries or time periods. From the appearance of L. Frank Baum’s emerald city in an underground world, to dialogue from the mouth of Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit in the head of a madman, these stories revisit tales told before, but tell them in an always new and often unsettling way. While an incarnation of Palahniuk’s Tyler Durden challenges what amounts to a lunar colony’s matriarchy in one tale, in another Jane Austen’s Mary Bennet converses with Mary Shelley’s Doctor Frankenstein.

But this isn’t like popping a comfortable mix-tape in your dad’s old Chevy and going for a ride by the old haunts; it’s more like taking a slow trip down in an open-doored elevator through your estranged uncle’s apartment block. You catch glimpses of things you remember, hear clips of songs you know, but each is in an unfamiliar place and presented in a situation that’s just a little too menacing for comfort.

All of which brings us to that second feeling. Throughout the collection, there persists an idea that any meaningful human interaction is unlikely at best, and often painful if achieved. Old friends discover new wedges driven between them, families fall apart and romances fail. If you want a cheerful trip about people getting together maybe this isn’t the book for you. But I still think you should read it.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t cheerful moments in the collection. In “The Red Phone” two oddball telephone intermediaries make a bond in a bizarre situation, and in fact the two pages of enigmatic writing that comprise the story “Downtown” are also two of my favourite pages of reading in the past several years. But there’s more to it than that. There are stories here that will challenge you to understand the way people act as individuals and as members of groups.

“The Invisible Empire” deals with a band of vigilante women taking the prevention of domestic violence into their own hands. The four stories that make up the “Lunar Quartet” — “The Juniper Tree,” “Stories for Men,” “Under the Lunchbox Tree,” and “Sunlight or Rock” — take place in a kind of matriarchal lunar society where sexual politics seems to take centre stage. In these stories Kessel doesn’t just take pot-shots at gender relations in western society, he wades in and wrestles with the topic in earnest. They work because he doesn’t oversimplify things or let the situations he sets up carry mere caricatures along for the ride. His characters develop with the stories and learn to face the realities of their situations, for better or worse.

At no point in this collection does it feel as though Kessel has taken the easy way out, and, indeed, if there’s one lesson you’ll come away with after reading it, it’s that there rarely is an easy way out. But despite the darkness, for its moments of introspection, revelation, and even elation, this book is worth reading. Is this a quick read? No. Is it an easy read? No. Is it a good read? Yes, oh yes.


The Baum Plan For Financial Independence and Other Stories is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License. It is available for free download from Small Beer Press, and in a tangible copy (for a small but worthwhile fee) from, among others.

Sunday August 3 (or perhaps a few days later, due to a shakespearean event): Kelly Link: Stranger Things Happen.

Keep reading, keep writing.



  1. […] Review: “The Baum Plan for Financial Independence” by John Kessel […]

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