Falling asleep the other night, I couldn’t help but think about dead people. Not in a Sixth Sense kind of way – although there’s still time for a twist – I was just thinking about them. Like, what’s their deal with homosexuals?
Matthew J. Trafford’s new collection of short stories, The Divinity Gene, has a way of doing this. His stories are ostensibly fantastical, but innately fantastic. Mermaids, angels, cyber-devils, clones, and more fill the open pages of the book, but it’s the human characters that stay with me after the pages are closed. His stories use elements that are beyond human as backdrops to portray stories that are nakedly, painfully, human.
Trafford treats each story as an experiment in story-telling. The most exciting thing was opening the book each time and being dumped into a completely new environment. Stories range dramatically in style, from third-person to first-person, from using cryptic footnotes, to adopting the format of a Wikipedia article, from telling two sides of a story simultaneously, to retelling the same story over and over again from different angles. The most striking part about this is how each wildly different story-telling technique feels like it is still part of Trafford’s grander tale. He is able to give each style and story a beating heart.
But let’s get back to dead people and their opinions on social policy. What Trafford does in The Divinity Gene is drop in elements of the imagination and then just leave them be. He wastes no time explaining why there are dead people walking among the living in Camping at Dead Man’s Point, just like he doesn’t invite us to understand the divine purpose of a bunch of angels opening a gay club in The Renegade Angels of Parkdale. The characters in his story don’t ask these questions either, closing off all avenues of our curiosity and forcing us to just go with it. The angels, really, aren’t the point.
A great dramatic satirist, Trafford’s exotic creations are meant to sate our curiosity in other ways – in asking about the nature of intolerance, of faith, of orientation, of love, and of learning. The only thing that’s well and alive about a dead person apparently is his bigotry.
Many of the stories in Trafford’s book centre at least somewhat on the experience of being a homosexual in North America, which has certainly been Trafford’s own experience. He makes this clear in a story where he caricatures himself as the main character, struggling as an outcast, even among freaks. The sense that his writing comes from an honest place is evident even before this overt admission, but in doing away with a character, he presents an incredible rawness that gives added value to each of the other lead characters.
Across the ten stories in the book there is considerable variety. The plots, which I have touched on, are most memorable when they are fantastical. However, no story ever clings too tightly to its gimmick, leaving plenty of room for characters to live and breathe. The fantasies are treated as plainly as anything else. Thematically, the stories mostly pit people from different worlds or perspectives, asking the reader to think about the nature of confrontation, insecurity, and the tendency to make emotional judgments. Also, it asks you to wonder what the problem is with the undead. You’d think they’d be super happy, what with being alive again, but you’d be wrong. They’re actually total jerks.
The Divinity Gene is an amazing debut from a writer who clearly has a great control over the page. He is able to write characters more interesting than any of the incredible events happening around them, which is an awesome feat when some of those events include the cloning of Jesus Christ. Yet it’s the devoutly Catholic geneticist who holds me rapt; it is the small boy who does not want to gut the fish who keeps me glued; it is the man who lives in the library who makes me turn the page.
It is Matthew J. Trafford, harassed by the undead, who causes me to stay up, thinking about corpses.
It is something you should think about too.