Novelist Craig Lancaster has never shied away from exposing the darkest corners of ordinary existence. Nor, for that matter, from uncorking the feel-good triteness of popular feeling. And in his first compilation of published and unpublished short fiction, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, he exhibits a scope equally as bleak as his novel The Summer Son and equally as saccharine as his novel 800 Hours of Edward. "Love isn't enough," Lancaster writes, and these bitter and sweet stories set out to demonstrate that shattering maxim.
The pieces collected in Quantum Physics go to flagrant extremes. "Sad Tomato: A Love Story" is quintessentially gritty Lancaster, a horrifying tale of sadomasochism and murder, whereas "Comfort and Joy" is a mawkish drama concerning a lonely former NASA engineer who unintentionally becomes the father-figure to a young boy. With similarly weird duality, "Alyssa Alights" reads as a graphic, point-by-point record of a runaway girl's descent into homelessness and depravity, which contrasts with "Cruelty to Animals," a yarn I can only describe as a feline-themed romantic satire. For much of Quantum Physics, there seems to be two Craig Lancasters at work: the Lancaster who narrates with the viciousness of Donald Ray Pollack, and a second Lancaster, the one who strives for the semi-liquid affectation of O. Henry.
Fortunately, much of Quantum Physics is populated by the sorts of drifters and desperate idealists whom Lancaster is best suited to portray. No amount of sappy twists can interfere with the intensity of his potent characterizations and assured style. Characters like Jim Quillen, from "She's Gone" (and who also appeared in The Summer Son), are weak and strong-willed at the same time, consistently anguished and frustrated. But they are never artificial. Lancaster is an exceptional archivist of angst, and his latest book is filled with the downcast routines of extraordinary losers who construct their own suffering and then drown in it.
The title story is the finest of the bunch, a heartbreakingly precise study of a troubled married man living out an alternate love affair with a woman halfway across the world. The first six paragraphs could be used as a mnemonic on how to write flash fiction. A sense of urban ennui is tangible here, drawing the reader into a terrible place of yearning and desperation in the form of Ross Newbry and his uneasy desire. Restless hope pervades Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, along with the rest of Lancaster's best work, wherein the possibility of redemption is curtailed by abrupt, shocking or unfinished-seeming climaxes.
As with his two novels, alienation, attraction and repulsion are predominant fixtures in Lancaster's world, where Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle applies as rigorously to the momentum of love and hate as it does to colliding particles. Billings, a frequent backdrop in these naturalistic fictions, is rendered as a crossroads of yearning and sudden violencethe closed system from which some form of equilibrium, however harsh, is occasionally attained. Once again, Lancaster shows his mastery of writing about perfectly imperfect human beings and their need for contentment or self-destruction, and mostly for both, simultaneously.