Sofia Samatar's Reviews > The Ant King: And Other Stories

The Ant King by Benjamin Rosenbaum
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Apr 08, 12

Read in April, 2012

This collection of short stories is both awesome and hard to describe--two things that tend to go together.

Imagine if Italo Calvino's ghost moved to California, planted itself on the beach and started tweeting short stories while getting seriously drunk on a cocktail of Jane Austen and the Torah. The result might be something resembling a Benjamin Rosenbaum story.

It's tone, rather than style, that makes the stories so varied. All of them are extremely well written, showing a feel for rhythm both on the structural level--what we call pacing--and on the sentence level (the sort of thing Ursula K. Le Guin analyzes in her essay "Stress-Rhythm in Poetry and Prose"). But the slyly humorous tone of the title story, just to take an example, is so wildly different from the elegiac tone of the story that follows it, "The Valley of the Giants," that they seem to be written by different authors.

You could almost divide the stories into two camps, the playful "Ant King" camp and the melancholy "Valley of the Giants" camp, but let's not do that, because it would be boring. Instead, let's focus on my very favorite, "Other Cities," a series of thirteen short-short stories. Part of what I love about "Other Cities" is, frankly, the daring involved in writing short-short stories about imaginary cities in the wake of Calvino's Invisible Cities. Calvino is a master, and his book is a classic. And here comes a writer with--some more imaginary cities. Who DOES that? Benjamin Rosenbaum, people. And what's more, he pulls it off. I like a lot of his stories better than Calvino's. In these stories, the playful and melancholy aspects of Rosenbaum's writing form a peculiar, painful and addictive blend. I like these stories so much, I want to eat them. (If this were a Rosenbaum story, I probably could.) I like a lot of the other stories in the collection too, especially "Embracing-the-New" and "The Book of Jashar," but for me "Other Cities" is The One.

And yes, there are stories I don't care for so much. "Sense and Sensibility," popular with many readers, just left me sort of "what?", because I didn't want the Dashwoods to be living on a giant precancerous mole, or maybe the mole was normal-sized and they were tiny, but anyway, every time the metafictional asides came in I was relieved and happy because for me the "alienating, insipid, random, arbitrarily hostile" authorial intrusions were better than the Dashwoods on a mole. I almost didn't like "The Ant King" in the beginning because of the gumballs, but Rosenbaum snagged me with "There is a group for everything in California." That line is so perfectly placed, so deceptively innocent, and so true, that I succumbed. I'm glad I did. It was worth it.
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