Our author, professor of creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, is apparently a huge nerd, and the title of his first short story collection allows the science fiction-savvy reader to discern this fact upfront. Omicron Ceti III is the name of the planet featured in the Star Trek episode entitled “This Side of Paradise,” and separate quotations from the episode act as epigraphs to the three sections that make up this collection of nine stories.
As the first-person narrator in the titular story tells the reader, in this particular Star Trek episode:
Spock goes down to Omicron Ceti III and gets sprayed by these poppy plants and spends half the show frolicking around with a young Jill Ireland. . . . It’s a beautiful thing because Spock is normally so reserved. But then the poppies wear off, and he goes back to being regular old Mr. Spock, the one who can’t feel emotion. . . . [H]e says, “I am what I am . . . and, if there are self-made purgatories, we must all live in them.”
The idea of the universality of “self-made purgatories” gives this collection thematic coherence. Thomas Balázs displays a deep appreciation for both sexual and intellectual obsession, for how a person’s private life of fantasy and fandom can imbue his surroundings with a thrillingly individual significance while also leaving him depressed and isolated. Such is the case for the closeted narrator of “My Secret War,” who begins to covertly harass his English professor, rumored to be a former FBI agent, once he becomes aware of the latter’s homosexual dalliances. The narrator begins to construe his professor’s pedagogical “protocol” as evidence: “Protocol. Just the kind of word I expected from a pervert posing as an FBI agent posing as an English teacher.”
Balázs’s greatest strength as a writer is his ability to highlight the humorous aspects of his narrators’ obsessions—be it that of the gourmand for unique dishes, the Victorianist for Middlemarch, or a bald salesman for his new hairpiece—while still portraying eccentrics with compassion.
The best example of this double-pronged technique is his depiction of Erik Aaronson, an emotionally stunted Trekkie. Erik’s tendency to describe his life in terms specific to the Star Trek universe is hilarious. When one of his many partners critiques his stoicism by “compar[ing] me to Data, the android from Star Trek: The Next Generation,” Erik resents the remark because he hates the spinoff: “Data is a pale imitation of Spock. . . . I told her as much while she was walking out the door.” The irrelevance of Erik’s fanboy nitpick to the dilemma at hand causes the reader to laugh, while his offhand mention of his girlfriend’s departure stirs in the audience that regret which Erik is unable to express himself.
To regard Erik and his fellow narrators with condescending pity, however, would be to overlook the author’s underlying suggestion that everyone is involved in behaviors that, from the perspective of third parties, seem laughable. Erik’s psychiatrist raves that the car crash that killed his patient’s mother is a “classic” example of a “reverse Oedipus”—his fervor for uncovering “erotic attachment” more than equal to Erik’s love of Trek. The Victorianist narrator of “April Paris” pursues “a hopelessly complex and already out-of-date intellectual project,” but the paper written by his more mainstream colleague on how Sesame Street has “been co-opted by the right with its false optimism” seems the product of a different brand of academic lunacy. In “The Gourmand,” the eponymous narrator is rebuked by a college classmate who discovers his culinary habits: “I would have been understanding if we had ended up in a gay bar. . . . But this is just weird.” By the end of the story, this detractor has become a dominatrix.
Despite its emphasis on the ubiquity of quirkiness, Balázs’s collection sometimes comes up short in its attempts to portray eccentric relationships. While Erik’s romance with a fellow mental patient is endearing, the gourmand’s intimacy with a fellow foodie is unconvincing, largely because such poignant emotion seems false in a story otherwise defined by an exaggeratedly macabre tone. Also, Balázs sometimes strains linguistically in trying to affirm pathos, resulting in showy metaphors such as, “I was caught between the Scylla of shame and Charybdis of lust . . . [but] had a talisman . . . [in] the sweet guiltless pleasure of cannabis.” The opening story about an adolescent girl’s first menstrual period is too brief to serve as anything other than fulfillment of an arbitrary diversity quota, which is hardly necessary given the inherent diversity in this collection, an enjoyably sardonic celebration of the bizarre.
Thomas Johnson is a writer in Baltimore.