It is with great respect for her fiction that I now proclaim Sharma Shields the Dave Chappelle of short fiction—the 14 stories in the award-winning Favorite Monster are that funny. And by "that funny" I don't just mean they'll help the reader build an abdominal six-pack in 134 pages, though they will; I mean they are laced with that nearly-impossible-to-write, spare-absolutely-no-one humor that makes the reader chortle and cringe by turns, by the sentence.
Favorite Monster, winner of the 2011 Autumn House Fiction Prize, opens with "The McGugle Account," a story that begins: "We were all surprised when Brian hired the Cyclops." Other enticing first lines include "He was my serial killer" ("Souvenirs"); "My hatred for Agnes led directly to our family's appearance on 'Oprah'" ("Antropolis"); "For most people who met the werewolf on a moonlit night, a bloodbath ensued" ("The Writer's Werewolf"); and, "In junior high I shared my first kiss with the boy who wore a prophetic glass eyeball" ("The Ones").
Titillating as these leads are, though, they would ultimately disappoint the reader if Shields, winner of the Tim McGinnis Award for Humor and the A.B. Guthrie Award for Outstanding Prose, were not able to develop and give comedic complication to the initial friction of her openers. To paraphrase a remark from Robert Frost on poems, there are many ways to get oneself into the woods, but only the artist gets into and out of the woods. Time and again in these stories, Shields enters the forest with boldness and elucidates an original path home.
A young PR account manager, Carol, narrates "The McGugle Account," and at the opening of the story she details the new-to-the-workplace, Proust-quoting Cyclops, with whom she later copulates:
"No, it wasn't until he turned that I saw why others described him as revolting: the large eye, settled like a rough diamond above his eyebrows (not under them as many would think) was, to put it mildly, intimidating. But what an eye it was! The color of warm sand, bright and penetrating. So penetrating that when he caught my gaze I swore he could see the color of my bones beneath my expensive tweed suit and inexpensive (and somewhat gritty) bra and underwear."
Though these stories—one is tempted to call them "tales"employ elements of the surreal or uncanny, they are utterly un-fantastic, told in a spare, matter-of-fact voice that recalls Russell Edson, Peruvian poet Nicanor Parra and the Garcia Marquez of "No One Writes to the Colonel," but is unique to our particular "century and moment of mania," as someone called it, and completely owned by Shields. Who else could write, in the aforementioned Carol's voice, "After her tedious involvement with crank and the home shopping network, [Mrs. Lipman] hungered for as much counsel as she could get."
Set mostly in the Northwest (an alternate title to the book could have been the third story's title, "Field Guide to Monsters of the Inland Northwest"), not all of the pieces in Favorite Monster set human characters onstage beside inhuman characters. "Sunshine and The Predator," for instance, begins innocently enough: "Dad said, If you're bored, be like the Blue Collar Kids. Get a friggin job." So adolescent "class prude" Erin does as told, and finds work at the local theme park running The Rock 'N' Roller with "class slut" Joan. The two girls quickly endear themselves to (and, in Shields's hands, become perfect foils for) one another.
In an early and foreshadowing scene, ne'er-do-well Joan consoles the responsible narrator for a careless blunder:
"'What's the matter?' she asked.
'I feel awful,' I blubbered, 'I don't want to get fired.'
'You're not going to get fired,' Joan laughed. Her blonde hair caught the sun and tossed it back. 'You know what you have to do around here to get fired?'
I shook my head.
Despite its absence of "monsters," "Sunshine and The Predator" thoroughly asserts Favorite Monster's cunning and implicit thesis, that we humans need only our will and ineptitude to trump the horridity of Cyclops, Medusa, Werewolf, et al.
It's a metaphoric stretch, but one might say these three creatures serve as talismans, or intentions, for Shields's stories and what they hope to accomplish: draw truths out with their gaze, turn time to stone and draw blood. And do they ever.
Several years ago, after experiencing rabid success with The Chappelle Show, Dave Chappelle embarked on a self-imposed exile to South Africa because he said he deemed disingenuous the fame and money his comedic talents had brought forth, but I always wondered if perhaps he left America because he was simply funnier than everyone else. So is Sharma Shields. For our abdominal muscle tone and hearts, let's hope hard she decides to stick around.