Now in paperback, Eric Puchner's celebrated debut collection, a finalist for the New York Public Library's Young Lions Fiction Award, established him as one of our most brilliant and promising new literary voices.
Writing from an impressive range of perspectives -- men and women, children and adults, immigrants and tourists -- Puchner deftly exposes the dark, tender undersides of his characters with arresting beauty and precision. Here are people fumbling for identity in a dehumanizing world, captured in moments that are hilarious, shocking, and transcendent, sometimes all at once. Unfailingly true, surprisingly moving, and impossible to forget, these stories make up an extraordinary and strikingly original collection.
Eric Puchner is the author of the novel Model Home (Scribner, 2010), which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and won a California Book Award and a Barnes & Noble Discover Award (2nd place). It was also longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His debut short story collection, Music Through the Floor (Scribner, 2005), was a finalist for the NY Public Library's Young Lions Award.
His fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in GQ, Tin House, Zoetrope: All Story, Chicago Tribune, The Sun, Glimmer Train, Best New American Voices, and many other journals and anthologies. He has work forthcoming in Best American Short Stories 2012 (edited by tom Perrotta) and Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012 (edited by Dave Eggers).
A recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, and a National Endowment for the Arts grant, he is an assistant professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, novelist Katharine Noel, and their two children.
Worth reading for the Leda and the Swan "essay" alone. The author has a particular way with slow buildup and abrupt, almost freefall endings. Like, if you graphed the stories they would look like a series of long isosceles triangles lying on their sides.
I think I'm drawn to short stories that have a melancholy slant. These stories fit the bill. It's an uneven collection, but there are some very good ones included. One of the best is one of the shortest: "Neon Tetras". In the span of the few pages of this story, a boy comes to an understanding of why his father is obsessed with the pet shop. Also, liked: "Children of God" - in which an unfocused college graduate takes care of several mentally retarded adults in a group living situation. "Animals Down Below" - the story of a brother and sister trying hard to reintegrate their mother into their seriously altered family life. "Mission" - an ESL teacher's desperate attempts to fit in with the immigrant communities he teaches and lives in the midst of leaves him overwhelmed and speechless in the face of the real heartbreak revealed from one of his own student's personal experiences.
I am somewhat chagrined to admit that it's taken me quite awhile to get around to reading this (even though I have been recommending it in various bookstore jobs I've had for several years now), but I am very glad that I did. A, and I, knew Eric from when we lived in San Francisco; and I always felt confident recommending his work based on conversations I had had with him. Now I know that those recommendations were well founded.
It is an incredibly well written collection of short fiction. Sometimes humorous, sometimes depressing, always tinged with a slight darkness. It is not often, in a collection, that one can honestly say that they have enjoyed all of the stories. In this case, I can. Each story is truly unique, and engaging. Each a fantastic use of language, and each breathtaking in it's own way.
I bought 'Music Through the Floor' about 10-12 years ago at Tattered Cover in Denver. It wasn't until this summer, the summer of the pandemic, that the collection grabbed my attention. It is an intriguing set of nine short stories by Eric Puchner. The stories are filled with characters who are a bit damaged, but believable, have a darkness to their souls, but show resilience. The writing is brilliant with many layers of meaning and nuance. The stories are not necessarily out to teach or inform, but rather, we read to them to observe humans being human. I would describe the book as 'postmodern literature and the plight of what It means to be human.'
My first exposure to Eric Puchner was through his wonderful novel - Model Home: A Novel -- about a father struggling to keep his family together after career setbacks and one shocking family tragedy. That book made me want to go back and read his short-story collection, which I knew received considerable critical accolades when it came out in 2005. Now I know why. I enjoyed every story in this piece. They all offer compelling storylines about characters he gets you to care deeply about from the very outset.
There's a considerable range of writing talent on display here - unique premises, unexpected character and plot developments, and beautiful descriptive passages with a lyricism that never crosses the line into those overwrought attempts at poetic language that some authors fall prey to when trying to exhibit their "writing chops."
Amid all this virtuosity, there is also a light, deft touch at work that can get you to laugh over characters' foibles, such as the would-be car hijacker whose has the bad luck to commandeer a driver's ed car filled with students who don't know how to drive yet (in "A Fear of Invisible Tribes"). The writing is so evocative that certain images will linger in your mind long after you finish reading the collection: the disabled men who sticks his tongue in the ear of his caretaker every time the caretaker has to change his diaper (in "Children of God"); the father angrily trying to scoop up the one fish he wants in a pet store fish tank because he can't have what he really wants - a chance to interact with the beautiful young girl who normally works the counter (in "Neon Tetras"); the ants marching off with alphabet soup letters that spell out nonsense words beneath the eyes of the two adulterers who have not control over the one language they can't resist speaking in - that of their bodies ("Body Language"); the proud but poor Latina bathing her mentally disabled grown son in her garage cum apartment ("Mission").
The 10 stories in the collection are:
1. Children of God - 22 pp - A suicidally depressed young man begins to take reluctant pleasure in the daily rituals of his life as a caretaker in a home for two men - one mentally disabled, the other severely physically disabled.
2. Essay #3: Leda and the Swan - 26 pp - A high school girl's essay on the Yeats' poem "Leda and the Swan" becomes a revelation of the crazy dynamic of her family life - a rebellious, vegan older sister; an alcoholic mother; a step-father who spends all his time watching ladies' beach volleyball on TV; and a musician boyfriend she thinks she has stolen from her sister.
3. Child's Play - 21 pp - An elementary school outcast has only one friend, and when he has a chance to hang out with the tougher and "cooler" boys in his neighborhood, he becomes an accomplice to a stunning act of sadism.
4. Diablo - 26 pp - An illegal Mexican immigrant shares a studio apartment in San Francisco with his brother. He sends half of the small amount he earns every month back home to his beloved wife and children and dreams of returning one day to Mexico to run a ranch. With the money he's been saving in a papier mache devil that his son sent him (the Diablo of the title), he's halfway toward his goal, until things start to unravel for him - his boss docks his pay after he makes an honest mistake and temptation presents itself on a rare night out for a beer with his wannabe ladies' man brother.
5. Neon Tetra - 6 pp - A young boy discovers his father's desire to frequently visit a lush tropical fish store in downtown Baltimore involves something far more complex than his desire to fill a new coffin-sized aquarium. The descriptive passages are lyrically beautiful - just one example as they step into the tank-filled pet store: "the lavender hush that felt like a rescue, absorbing you into its glow." And the ending here (without giving too much away) is a master-stroke - the father's frustrated attempt to pull from a tank the one fish that he wants above all the other identical ones is a perfect metaphorical illustration of his life.
6. Legends - 27 pp - A couple on a second honeymoon in Mexico that was designed to compensate for the misadventures of their first get caught in the spell of an American who's been living in the country and gone local. Hungry for some adventure, the wife agrees to let this man become their tour guide, even though the more cautious and skeptical husband would prefer they didn't. A trip to the countryside to visit a comatose girl who's supposed to be a magical healer serves as the setting to prove whose instincts were right.
7. A Fear of Invisible Tribes -- 25 pp- An art history graduate student meets another woman, a recovering alcoholic, in driver's ed training. When a man with a sawed-off shotgun hijacks their student driver car, the former alcoholic speaks up boldly to the hijacker and saves the grad student's life. The experience helps the graduate student release all the crippling fears that have compromised her life. But when she tries to befriend her savior their social class distinctions make the relationship difficult. The grad student makes every attempt to prevent the alcoholic from feeling stupid when they're in conversation with her fellow grad students, but her own suspicions about how lower-class women behave become a roadblock to their friendship and undermine her ability to keep her fears of just about everything at bay.
8. Body Language - 5 pp - A married man and woman are cheating on their spouses. The man's wife, who was his lover's friend when they were all in college together, has a disease that's causing her body to cripple into paralysis. Consumed with guilt, the adulterers still can't resist each other.
9. Animals Here Below - 23 pp - A young boy and his sister try to make their stepmom, who raised them since infancy, return home after a three-year absence, hoping they can return their family life to the happier days when they were all together - and before their father entered the prolonged depression he's been in since she left.
10. Mission - 33 pp - An idealistic young man teaches English as a second language to a mix of immigrants from around the world - Russia, Eastern Europe, Mexico & China. He desperately wants to be part of the melting pot that is the Mission district of San Francisco, but he hasn't had much success getting the district's residents to accept him. While his students do begin to flourish, he gets caught up in the anger directed at him by a proud, older Latina, who didn't like being corrected for the use of the word "enemy" in a contextual way that she was sure was right. She drops out of his class and becomes his enemy as she begins stalking him with her grown, disabled son. The teacher's diligent efforts to win her back make this story incredibly poignant.
It's been a while since I've been so deeply engrossed in a work of literary fiction. I was drawn to this collection when I'd read "Essay #3: Leda and the Swan" elsewhere.
What Puchner does really well is render the atmosphere of the stories through the character's voice. Through the observant eyes of children, teens, pets and secondary others, Puchner underscores the emotional motivations of other characters in the story. For example, when the unnamed protagonist in "Neon Tetra" suspects that his father is leaving his emotional role in the relationship because he wants to cheat on his wife, or when Desmond in "Legends", suspects that his tour guide is trying to seduce his wife. Another really powerful moment was when the narrator Quinn expects Delaney to kiss her in "A Fear of Invisible Tribes" but discovers that her own perception of Delaney's inferiority gets in the way of her actually finding meaning in that connection.
Infidelity is a common theme across most of the stories and strangely enough across all sorts of emotional relationships - "Child's Play" explores the violation of a sacred friendship, "Body Language" explores the infidelity of a man who is losing his wife to a terminal disease and "Animals Down Below" explores how a parent can be unfaithful to their child, and leave them hungry for love.
My vacation reading got off to a slow start. I brought a number of books that I have owned for awhile but have never gotten around to reading. Some, like this one, I am not even sure why I wanted to read them at all.
I like short stories and I very much like the first story in this collection. Puchner made me feel for his characters and I finished the story wishing I knew more about the people whose lives we had joined for a few pages. However, I couldn’t sustain my interest.
Lately, I have struggled with relating to younger protagonists in the books I read. I don’t want to turn into a curmudgeonly old woman who can’t relate to “those young people.” Hopefully this is just a phase. However, it meant I didn’t really like Puchner’s characters and that I was really happy to be done with this book.
Solid collection of stories. Some lulls here and there, stories perhaps run a bit too long at times, but stellar at its best moments. Strong sense of narrative, driven by characters' wants and actions. Funny and poignant. Highlights: A man adrift takes a job caring for special-needs adults in "Children of God"; a girl recounts a love triangle in a high-school essay in "Essay #3: Leda and the Swan"; on Halloween boys seek their place in the social hierarchy in "Child's Play"; a boy and his father visit an aquarium shop in "Neon Tetra"; a couple vacations in Mexico in "Legends"; children plot to win back their wayward mother's love when she visits her floundering family in "Animals Here Below." And an adult ESL teacher grapples with his students' struggles and successes in "Mission."
The images and characters in these stories are unforgettable. Worth reading twice or more. It’s hard to understand how anyone can see and transcribe the world this way, so faithful to the contradictions.
Short stories that transport the reader to another place and time. You can pick up the book for an 5 minutes and live in another moment in time, with complicated characters and a mish moshed story line to get temporary lost in. Definitely a good read for short story lovers!
As much as I enjoy Puchner's writing, I couldn't finish the book so far with the subject matter of these stories. They're depressing and dark and I don't look forward to reading them, so I'm giving this book up for now but hope to come back to it at another time.
I did Eric Puchner backwards - don't quote me - reading his novel, Model Home, long before getting to his first publication, this very fine collection of short stories. He's a master of a particularly American brand of loneliness, narrators who expected something very different than what they're facing, struggling to figure out their own role in how things fell apart. In Music Through the Floor, the stories are equally comic and disturbing, sometimes jarring in their cruelty (Narcissist Mom in Animals Here Below, I'm looking at you). Some pieces cover territory visited several times over in contemporary short stories - particularly the caretaker's trials and triumphs with his 'special needs' clients in Children of God, and Child Play's savage attack by a squad of pre-teen boys on the neighbourhood Weird Kid - but the writing is always strong, and the stories that visit new places outnumber the others. The best is saved for last: the story Mission, with its hapless Nils, an all too well meaning white guy who can't understand his inability to reach the adult foreign students in his English Language class (and he's trying so hard! Just as he'd put himself out there to befriend his neighbours in the Mission District, where he'd "imagined borrowing Nicaraguan spices, trading jazz CDs for broken hearted ranchera music." Yah, this didn't happen). Nils comes to grief and finally, quite suddenly, to realization through his increasingly failed attempts to reach a particular student who has it out for him. As the doorway to her life cracks open, inch by inch, his vision of who she is and what she has endured widens; when she steps all the way out and takes command, it's something of a miracle to witness. Mission could have been a short novel - there's much, much more to the story, with an array of spirited characters who have landed in the US from every corner of the earth - but the story ingeniously covers a vast swath of disconnected American lives straining to find common ground.
A strong collection of stories followed by an even stronger novel - any word of something new coming from Eric Puchner? I want it.
I usually prefer not to read a single-author short story collection straight through, but to intersperse it with other reading. Even with very good authors, I find that reading too many short stories back-to-back emphasizes repeating themes and devices. I find it often blunts the impact of individual stories.
Puchner’s Music Through the Floor is a short story collection that really doesn’t require this approach — the breadth of these nine stories is impressive. There’s something dark, in some cases even grim, in all of them, but their tones, voices, and themes are strikingly different. Even something as generic as “these stories are about people struggling to overcome communication barriers,” can’t encompass this collection. “Neon Tetra” derives its tension from the gap between its young protagonist’s understanding of the situation, and cues the adult reader recognizes. (It’s a short enough piece that this disparity is sufficient to carry it). “Children of God,” isn’t about the narrator’s struggle to communicate — it’s about how he uses his bond with two “developmentally disabled” men to avoid communication.
What these stories do have in common is sharp observation and vividly drawn characters. They’re all good, and some of them are jaw-droppingly, I’m-so-jealous-of-your-talent, I-can’t-believe-this-is-your-first-book good. My only criticism is that the resolution — the final sentence, even — of a few of these stories seems a little too tidy. (Perhaps this is a reaction to the fact that the stories in the last comparably strong collection I read, Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, went out of their way to avoid definitive closure. In any case, it’s a teeny quibble.)
Man, the first story in this collection is wrenching as hell. It's very great. Then the second is hilarious, and but also touching. You're thinking oh man, this is going to be good. A Fresh New Voice for American Fiction. Then though, for like four stories in a row, things get kind of dull and flat. The writing is good, or else it's certainly not too shabby, but it's just flat. It doesn't grab you by the neck or the balls or anything, which, why not. Good writing should. Then he comes back toward the end and serves up a few winners. Not super consistent but no trickery or gimmicks or anything. Just decent writing here.
Eric Puchner's nine stories featuring contemporary American urbanites makes for a fine debut. Everyday people portrayed through comic and tragic situations that so many readers can relate to, either personally or through someone they know. Animals Below Here gives a great perspective of a broken family through the child's eye. I felt Music showed great diversity with tales such as Diablo, featuring Ofelio the culturally displaced day laborer. At times, many of the characters will bring the reader to laugher, despite feeling their inner turmoil. I felt the stories to be a very balanced read.
Fabulous writing. The color, texture, beauty and flow of Puchner's prose sticks with you. He masterfully delves into the human condition, often focusing on dysfunction and dark aspects that compel his stories in a way I have not read before. Excerpts from the book jacket are spot on:
"No blurb can do justice to this book. It is riotously funny and smart and beautiful, as nuanced and unpredictable as real life."
"Music Through the Floor. . .is delivered with singular wit, energy, and ecstasy unique to Puchner's prose. The stories are infectious and irresistible, as if he's channeling Tristam Shandy, Dostoevsky, and South Park all at once."
I read Model Home a while ago, and loved that book. I can't believe it took me this long to read his collection of short stories, but I'm glad I finally did.
I saw a New York Times blurb that described Puchner as "technically gifted and emotionally insightful", and I think that about sums it up. His writing is almost perfection, and he can come from any angle without missing a beat. Humorous, humane, creepy, suspenseful, depressing, hopeful. He masters all of it and more.
I really wish he would be a little more productive, though. I would read anything this guy put down on a page.
There isn't anything too flashy going on here, just excellent short stories populated with genuine, multifaceted characters caught at moments that offer a deep understanding of them (often deeper than the understanding the characters have of themselves). Puncher does an amazing job of capturing the everyday complexities of people and their lives and giving everything just enough space to reveal itself in all its wonder, pain and humor. This is the kind of book I hope for whenever I read non-genre fiction.
These are the kinds of short stories I love--about "ordinary" people, somehow made interesting by the writer. Many of these stories seem to involve people who have some sort of outsider status--a man who takes care of two mentally disabled men; a boy who turns on a friend to impress a group; a man who teaches English as a second language, and cannot always understand the complexities of the multi-cultural group he teaches. Puchner is excellent at using different and real voices to tell his stories.
Loved it. As others have said, these stories are very well written, they are witty and ha-ha funny but also a little dark. There's a mood of sadness and loss--even grieving--underneath the light words of those sly, funny narrators. A really moving collection. If you don't know how I feel about Essay #3: Leda and the Swan yet, I say it again here: it's one of the best short stories ever! I read it the first time 2 years ago in an anthology and it stuck with me this whole time (usually I forget, I read a lot of short stories).
LOVED this collection of short stories. Puchner does a great job of manipulating your emotions. I was even impressed with the order of the stories. Although each was VERY different you could feel the roller coaster he built for you and although I normally hate coasters, I was loving every twist and turn. He writes very well in both gender voices which was great to hear.
I will admit, this is not for the faint of heart. There is sex, drugs, violence, and heart break throughout the stories.
For the UCSD Libraries staff - there are two copies in the Staff Break Room on the first floor.
The stories that most enchanted in me this collection were "Neon Tetra," "Animals Here Below," and best of all "Essay #3: Leda and the Swan." Puchner's stories all glimmer and shine, but these three were the best. None of them left me feeling indifferent or bored, which is gratifying. I would say that even my least favorite tales ("Diablo" and "Missions") are passable. I give it a 5 because the whole thing is great, and I might have even given it a 5 for "Essay #3" alone. Seriously. So good.
Eric Punchner debut book Music Through the Floor,is a amazing book. This book tells nine different stories, and somehow they all relate to each other in some kind of way. This is the the second book I read from him, after reading Model home. It is so much different,but I love Punchner writing style. There were some stories that I did not understand, but for the most part it was a neat and intriguing read.
Short stories by Eric Puchner are as good as his novels, even better because they make a more powerful impact just in a few pages. They can be funny, sad or tragic, depicting characters from all walks of life, but having something in common - desire to belong, to be understood and accepted. My favorite stories from this collection were "Child's Play", "A fear of invisible tribes", "Mission" and "Animals here below".
Wow, what an amazing writer. I enjoyed some of the stories, others were disturbing. But his writing is stunning. I recently started writing short stories again after a hiatus of several years, and it's amazing how that changes how I read fiction. I kept reading a sentence and thinking, "how did he do that? I would have never thought to do that!". Original voice, very witty.