So-called “realistic” fiction often fails to capture exactly how bent, how strange the business of living is. The quest for realism often belies the odd, the ugly, and the liminal, facts and dialogue substituted for those moments when reality becomes nebulous. What fiction writers often miss is that reality is a semi-permeable membrane; just as the egg lets in enough air for the embryonic chick to breathe, reality lets in enough unfamiliarity to keep things weird.
In his second collection of short fiction, Darryl Joel Berger uses this principle as the architecture from which to build his tales. The stories in Dark All Day are short – most a scant page or two, some even fewer – and accompanied by itchy, anxious illustrations, all of which look like the ink was gouged into the page with a chisel. Each piece has a punchline, its own small and smartly delivered wound, though each arrives differently, some as a cherry bomb unexpectedly blowing off the reader’s fingers, others as a deftly driven scalpel slice. Which is not to say that these pieces are glib, or neat; Dark All Day is all slippage and spillage, and often difficult to grasp.
Some of the pieces are easier to gain hold of, the black humour bubbling a little closer to the surface: a baby supervillain holding a funeral for his comic books; a starving, telepathic child bending his power toward evil because the only robust meals he encounters are served at funeral receptions. Others are more slippery, like “The Itch,” which mercilessly exposes how “time can be rewound or fast forwarded. You can project it in a cinemascope.” Stories like these demand rereading; they burrow under the skin like invisible bugs. The most disturbing pieces, like “A Sample History of the Bad Guys,” examine how frail and inadequate the narrative of news and reportage is in the face of evil, how violence is at once a thing of deep intimacy and insurmountable distance.
Like the character who “even in dreams … finds himself hard to look at,” it’s difficult to read Dark All Day without constantly wincing in recognition.