The word “spiritual” appears in each of the first three stories in Spencer Gordon’s debut collection, an appropriate marker for a book that traffics so resolutely in the existential malaise of our
pop-culture-saturated world. Gordon’s characters all strive to wrest meaning from the detritus of modernity.
In “The Land of Plenty,” a fictionalized rendition of Leonard Cohen is reduced to shilling for Subway restaurants as a means of subsistence. In “Lonely Planet,” an aging porn star at the onset of the digital revolution makes a final stab at reclaiming his virility by playing the part of a literal dinosaur. And in “Journey to the Centre of Something,” actor Matthew McConaughey embarks on a surreal journey across the Painted Desert, where he encounters himself – in more ways than one.
Gordon’s stories frequently abandon naturalism in favour of a kind of media-besotted delirium. This is perhaps most apparent in the McConaughey riff, and in “Transcript: Appeal of the Sentence,” which features a protagonist defending himself against charges of stalking and sexual predation resulting from his fixation on Disney Channel star and pop singer Miley Cyrus. That story, crafted as a single, 3,000-word sentence, is a bravura stylistic performance.
Indeed, Gordon demonstrates a refreshing willingness to test the plasticity of language and structure. “Frankie + Hilary + Romeo + Abigail + Helen: An Intermission,” which reads like a mash-up of David Foster Wallace and American Psycho–vintage Bret Easton Ellis, is an interrogation of boredom in the context of a society that has become so enthralled by the notion of celebrity that a mere litany of irrelevant facts about people in the public eye can be thought to carry some kind of deeper meaning.
This is not to suggest Gordon is incapable of being straightforward when it suits him. Two of the most emotionally affecting stories in the collection – “Wide and Blue and Empty,” about a mother’s attempt to connect with her grown son, and “Last Words,” about a man in his sixties trying to come to terms with the squandered potential of his life in the wake of a cancer diagnosis – are perfectly traditional short stories, rendered all the more potent for their lack of stylistic pyrotechnics.
Thematically, Gordon tips his hand with the collection’s opening words: “This is authentic.” The 10 stories in Cosmo are an investigation into the nature of authenticity in an age that seems ever more mediated and synthetic. How is it possible to live a meaningful life in a world that lionizes surfaces and shallowness? Gordon provides no comfortable, simplistic answers, but his approach to asking the questions is startling and invigorating.