Look Down is novelist, cultural commentator, and Broken Pencil magazine founder Hal Niedzviecki’s first collection of short stories since 1998. The stories here are raw, energetic, and, like the author’s 2001 novel Ditch, tend to focus on individual moments of intensity, often leaving the connective tissue between scenes implied.
Niedzviecki covers considerable ground in Look Down. “The Sexographer” grimly deflates any high-mindedness the reader might possess about the art world, while “Undead” takes apart the relationship between commercialism, death, and the rituals that give us closure. The claustrophobic “Sometime Next Sunrise” is the closest Niedzviecki comes to a typical family drama, while “Real Estate” would be a classic story of erotic awakening if it weren’t so profoundly unsettling.
“Prenatal,” about a pregnant teen who hears the voice of her fetus counselling in favour of an abortion, is remarkable for its dignity and compassion. In “Special Topic: Terrorism,” which closes the collection, three university students taking a sociology course on terrorism find themselves at the point where idealism and desire intersect with violence and fear. The action is localized and the stakes small, but Niedzviecki uses that tight focus to impart an immediacy that no airport potboiler about suitcase bombs could possibly achieve.
Despite being frequently bleak or disturbing, Look Down is not without wit. The opening story, “Doing God’s Work,” told from the perspective of God’s personal assistant, could have been a cynical, morose indictment of organized religion, but instead channels the verve and absurdity of Internet chatter to create something that feels striking and new.
Niedzviecki sometimes pushes things a little too far, but for the most part these stories are refreshing for their daring and directness, and Niedzviecki’s unrelenting drive to expose the hearts that still beat inside his characters, regardless of how damaged or stained. Look Down is never gentle or particularly refined, but it is always vital, and most importantly, fearless.