-Reviewed by Elinor Walpole-
Willie Smith’s Nothing Doing is a collection of short stories that claim to ‘anatomise America’s most vivid perversions and outsider fantasies with unmatched precision and wit’. Flagrantly offensive at times, the stories are wildly imaginative as they veer into the depths of some of the most disgusting and disturbing situations imaginable, located uncomfortably in the workplace or family home.
The collection was written over a period of thirty years, with many of the stories sharing themes and dialogue and seeming to interlink with each other; there are recurring visions of bestiality (particularly with ‘man’s best friend’); the image of the father passed out, self-anaesthetised in front of the television after a few too many beers; and more shockingly parental rape also rears its ugly head. Historical influences tinge the narrative- there are references to Vietnam, the Cold War, to changing vocabulary, attitudes and emerging drugs, and a child’s reaction to the Second World War and the Nazis.
One of the most restrained stories in the collection, the eponymous ‘Nothing Doing’, has a similar tone to the short stories of David Foster Wallace in its deconstruction of the bureaucracy of society (but without as many asides and footnotes). The story focuses on the palpable consequences of bounced ‘G-forms’, computer-generated forms that are supposed to automatically evaluate and allocate welfare to the people that need it, and the inevitable bug that errors arise due to human error or otherwise:
Meaning you the client shall eat chickenshit until such time as the worker, the input operator and their leadworkers and supervisors learn how to make the paper flow.
Comparing this tale with ‘Benny Saves the Day’, is to see a different mass impact from a glitch in the system. The world of greetings card manufacture is portrayed as an incredibly stressful, competitive environment where our pep-pill-popping protagonist struggles to ‘keep a clean slate, a new greeting card verse can arrive at any time’. Within the industry of manufactured emotions he writes a card that ‘triggers a pregnancy avalanche’ and crisis overpopulation. In ‘Nothing Doing’ human endeavour results not in births but an uncontrollable amount of bogus deaths. Due to simple input error of ‘8’ rather than the Greek symbol theta; “you terminate client due to crime-related death”. In ‘Nothing Doing’ an excess of bureaucracy is robbing people of their benefits and systematically ‘killing them off’, conversely in ‘Benny Saves the Day’ the protagonist is forced to take drastic action to bring about ‘a nosedive in production of the single greatest threat to life on earth: Americans’.
Other stories in the collection share similar themes but contrast vividly- ‘Genuine Imitation’ is a shocking tale told in comic staccato tone, throwing images of historic violence into the arena of the family home. A young boy is inspired to ‘play Hitler’ with his friends, dressing up and dreaming of ways to brainwash the people while planning genocide, somehow results in the rape of both his parents. This disturbing vignette is followed immediately in the collection by the more ponderous ‘Special on the Jews’ in which we see a different young boy questioning a documentary on the Holocaust and wondering about his own German, possibly Jewish, heritage. His thoughts on the fate of the Jews are contrasted by his father’s enraged outbursts on the advertising that interrupts the programme as “the most disgusting invention of modern civilisation” despite the content of the programme he is watching, compounded by the even more inappropriate jingle that recurs “You can trust your car to/ The man who wears the star”.
In ‘Hyperactive Before My Time’ another young mind is inspired by recent historical events to recreate Russian surgical experiments on his own pet dog. After seeing an article in Life magazine on the advances of Communist science and the creation of a two headed dog our protagonist impulsively sets to action in order to somehow do one better, despite his young age. The narrative voice is sickening in its naïve and earnest tone that follows the child’s decision-making process as though none of his apparently well-intentioned actions will have any consequences but positive ones that will bring him glory and save the nation. The story takes a strange turn when surgery turns to bestiality in the quest for a more ground-breaking advantage on the Russians, perhaps inspired by the boy’s emerging awareness of sexuality as he comments on the gossip about his neighbour’s ‘part of the boy it isn’t polite to discuss’ and witnesses dogs mating; “Why not graft onto a human an entire dog? Use the peg between my own legs – known to science as the penis…Such a gambit would never occur to the Russians, mired in their Communist rules”.
Nothing Doing delivers an insight into the more perverse view on how the developments of twentieth century history have impacted the American psyche, from the industry of commercially manufactured emotions through to the Cold War. Childish postwar curiosity and removal from the immediate horror of war has obviously taken its hold on the imaginations of Smith’s young characters – will they be victim or oppressor? Those seem to be their given roles as they sense impending threat. Often there is nobody to oppress but in the immediate vicinity – resulting in sexually violent and iconoclastic attacks on the family. Nothing Doing is thought-provoking but at times goes too far as it heaps grotesque image upon grotesque image with seeming flippancy. However as the stories set out to undermine those taken-for-granted standards in the face of what the world is really like, they succeed in showing how ‘normal’ life can foster some very abnormal tendencies.