“Free-Range Chickens” by Simon Rich (2009)

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chickens“Got your nose!”

As the news becomes more and more farcical, and I steadily lose the ability to comprehend what’s going on, I find that it’s better (in the short term, at least) so hide inside books. With this in mind, I now joyfully return to the mad mind of Simon Rich. One of the finest, silliest writers working today, my blog is already liberally sprinkled with his work – Ant Farm and Spoiled Brats to name two – and every time I dip into one of his collections, I come out smiling.

In this collection, we are treated to over fifty examples of sparkling flash fiction divided into the categories of “Growing Up”, “Going to Work”, “Daily Life”, “Relationships”, “Animals” and “God”. Rarely is a story more than two pages long, some are merely three or four lines, but each one is a perfectly crafted joke and tells so much more than what is revealed. A lot of them are simply lines of dialogue, but they’re all wonderfully smart and punchy.

Among others you have a young Simon learning about the tooth fairy for the first time and wondering whether there is a face fairy too; two frogs discussing the fact that they are killed and dissected for appalling crap science reports; Batman arguing with the mayor of Gotham City for better prisons to stop the Joker escaping; Count Dracula’s dating profile in which he attempts to prove he is a normal human; God forgetting exactly what his big plan is; what happens in the four years at acupuncture school; and the horrific truth behind logic problems. Two of the funniest – “Time Machine” and “Actor’s Nightmare” – are also among the shortest, but you’ll have to read them yourselves to see what I mean.

There’s not a whole lot else to say about this book, really. The stories are cleverly crafted and terribly funny, epitomising the adage that “brevity is wit”. There’s not a single wasted word and I can guarantee that this book will make you feel a whole lot better and perhaps a bit less alone.

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“Ant Farm” by Simon Rich (2007)

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ant farm“How about some ice cream, Isaac?”

If you loved yourself, you’d read Simon Rich, and that’s all there is to it. Given that this is his fourth appearance on my blog in just over two years (see also: What In God’s Name?, The Last Girlfriend On Earth and Spoiled Brats), it’s no surprise that he’s back here again and I’m talking him up once more.

Ant Farm and Other Desperate Situations, to give it its full title, is his first book, published when he was just twenty-three and is already full with all the humour and sheer genius that his later books also contained. I’d worried that maybe he’d started off not being quite so good, but, no, he’s been brilliant from the first moment.

Containing fifty-seven separate narratives, it sounds daunting, but each is unique and expertly constructed, and none of them are more than three pages long. These are not short stories, they are flash fiction, and yet using just a few hundred words at a time, Rich is capable to drumming up such drama and comedy that you long for there to be many, many more stories. Most of them revolve, as the full title suggests, around people stuck in difficult situations and how they cope with them, revealing a myriad facets of the human psyche, almost all of which are simply hilarious. The book is packed with laugh out loud moments and, sure, it’s a short read – not even 150 pages – but there are few better ways to spend an afternoon without taking your clothes off. Unless you like reading in the nude, but that’s not for here.

From the first story (what happened on the journey home after God stopped Abraham from killing Isaac) to the last (a troop of soldiers heading off to war), there are many adventures to be had. I won’t list them all – we’ve all got other things we need to be getting on with – but some highlights include:

the fact that in medieval England, all measurements were derived from the king’s body parts,

what happens when the guy responsible for naming Crayola colours has problems at home,

the two situations in which learning trigonometry turns out to have been useful,

what your mother thinks you think when she leaves you home alone,

what happens when a murder victim bumps into his murderer in the afterlife,

why parents don’t care if their teen rebels, as long as they wear deodorant,

and what happens when small talk goes wrong.

The book is split into five sections which contain stories centered around rough themes. In order, these are probably best labelled “childhood”, “teenage years”, “work”, “relationships” and “God”, although these are prone to blurring and not strictly that firm, but they give you some idea of what to expect. As I said at the start of this review, Rich is a treat that we should all be reading because the man can do magic with his brevity, and because he’s still so young, there are surely many more years of his work to look forward to.

If your tastes are not for Simon Rich, but rather you fancy something a bit stranger about cannibals, witches and investigative journalists, try my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, available for all ebook platforms right now!

“Spoiled Brats” by Simon Rich (2014)

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But, like, you don't even know how hard I have it...

But, like, you don’t even know how hard I have it…

“They buried my wife in a shoe box in Central Park.”

Writing funny literature is probably one of the hardest tasks imaginable. My own novel has been deemed witty, but I will never be able to compare to Simon Rich. Probably one of the funniest people to have come out of America in the last … well, ever, actually … Rich formerly wrote for Saturday Night Live, has worked for Pixar and has now just released his sixth book, despite only just having turned thirty.

If I didn’t like his work so much, I’d be jealous.

I’ve covered Rich twice already on this blog, with his novella What In God’s Name? and his previous collection of short stories, The Last Girlfriend On Earth. In those, each was about a different aspect of love. Here, he has once again themed his thirteen short stories to be around, obviously, spoiled brats. It’s sort of a love letter to Generation Y and the Millennials, albiet a love letter that says, “There you are, you’re alright, but keep away from me”. The stories are consistently funny, smart and generally wonderful, with plenty of moments of laugh out loud hilarity. Few writers have ever made me laugh as hard as Rich does. I’ll pick out my favourite stories here and discuss them.

“Animals” is the story of a hamster with strong Christian values who lives in a classroom populated by the bratty children of wealthy parents. You know the sort of kids – the kind that are endlessly disruptive but have never been told that they’re wrong, merely that everyone’s happy they’re at least joining in. The hamster must keep himself and his sons alive, but it is difficult when none of the students seem to want to bother feeding him. It’s a hilariously dark story.

“Sell Out” is the longest story by far in the collection and is the story of Simon himself meeting his great-great-grandfather Herschel who has been pickled in brine for the last 100 years and has emerged now absolutely fine but not understanding the modern world at all. It beautifully showcases what have become known as “first world problems” and the differences in life between then and now. For example, when Herschel finds Simon kicking his desk in frustration and swearing loudly, he assumes someone close to him must have died, remembering those people who worked in the factory with him getting crushed by the gears. As it turns out, the Internet is down.

“Rip” is about a musician who falls asleep at twenty-seven and wakes up three years later to find he’s thirty and his former bandmates now work in advertising, have steady partners, don’t play music anymore and are happy to sit around and discuss diets and thyroids.

Probably my favourite, though, is “Semester Abroad” about a girl in the year 3014 who is taking a semester to study on Saturn (because, like, everyone else is going to Mars…) and it’s written in that dire teenage girl voice with “like” every five words. However, it’s so smart and not a word is wasted, as you realise you’ve probably already met this girl. She’s annoyed with the crew who make her turn her phone off, even though, like, she’s right in the middle of texting her boyfriend Derek. And then when they’re on Saturn, it just gets worse because the natives have gone to war with a neighbouring tribe and, like, she knows that’s happening, but like, it does mean there’s no nightlife and there’s poor reception on her phone. And, like, that’s so not what she signed up for. A genius bit of writing.

It’s a magical collection and while the hipsters might get a rough ride from it, it’s smart enough to accept that they aren’t going anywhere and maybe having a dream or two isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It playfully toys with the ideals and situations that exist in our new world, but Rich acknowledges that he’s part of it too, given that he makes himself a character in one of the stories and rips the piss out of himself throughout. There are no dud stories and each one explodes like a riotous firework in your hands as you struggle to keep the laughs down.

Rich is a phenomenal talent and I look forward to more from him, as I’m sure with age he’s only going to improve.

If you want a sample of what to expect from his work, the story “Guy Walks Into A Bar” is available online to whet your appetite.

“What In God’s Name” by Simon Rich (2012)

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Working in Heaven can be Hell

“The CEO leaned back in his swivel chair and flicked on his flatscreen TV.”

Escaping the reign of the Nazis, I moved into a book that was far more light-hearted. I’ve said before that I have a weird addiction to books about the nature of God, as I love people’s endless takes on something we know nothing about. In this particular version, he is CEO of Heaven Inc., a company that deals with the affairs of Earth and makes sure that everything runs smoothly. However, recently he’s been phoning it in and is far more concerned with who wins sports events than answering prayers or fixing wars.

Eliza has just been promoted from the Prayers Department to an Angel in Miracles where she meets Craig, the only other person in Heaven who actually appears interested in his job. Eliza discovers that the prayers she spent so long organising have never even been touched by the CEO. Furious, she confronts him and tells him that if he’s not interested in the job anymore, maybe he should just quit.

And those simple words could spell trouble for the Earth and its inhabitants…

Simon Rich has featured on this blog already this year, and I’m fond of his work. He writes with sharpness and a brilliant sense of humour, mixing up the banal and the fantastic with such skill that it appears precision engineered. God, the CEO, is perhaps one of the sweeter versions of the character I’ve ever seen. Although clearly still capable of horrible things, he does seem to genuinely love his people. Craig is a great example of someone who has grown to love his meaningless job, and Eliza is a classically strong female character whom you want to get to know. There’s also Vince, a brash Archangel who puts on an act of bravado but scratch the surface and there’s  a lot more than that to him underneath.

There are also a few human characters here, in particular Sam and Laura. The things that the angels put them through are almost undeservedly cruel at times, but it is all for the greater good.

The novel deals with the nature of miracles and coincidence, about the abuse of power and the knowledge that our time is finite. The jokes are deft and smart, and while the story ends on a somewhat predictable note, there are some brilliant reveals along the way, in particular the explanation of what the criteria are to actually get a place in Heaven.

A frothy, easy-to-read novella with a lot of heart.

“The Last Girlfriend On Earth” by Simon Rich (2013)

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The-Last-Girlfriend-on-Earth

Dibs.

Heartbreak and failed romance form the bread and butter of fiction – practically always have done, and probably always will. Most people, unless they choose to spend their days under a rock or doing nothing but grinding on World of Warcraft, will eventually have their heartbroken by someone or other.

Simon Rich has taken this idea and run with it for thirty short stories about different aspects of love and, more specifically, the problems that arise from that word when things begin to go wrong. Like most anthologies, there are going to be some stories within that are better than others, and definitely there are some weak links in the chain here, but generally this is a very strong book from a great comic (Rich writes for Saturday Night Live). The stories are mostly told from a male point of view, and while some people may want to scream “Sexist!” at some of the ideas present, I think all of them, eventually, are supposed to show how ridiculous men are when it comes to their ideas of women. And, above everything else, the stories are all comedic and tongue-in-cheek.

I’ll pick out a couple of my favourite stories and discuss.

“Set Up” a great story about a chap in his thirties who, realising that all of his friends are getting married, asks them to set him up with someone which they delight in doing. Only, when it comes to meeting the girl, he discovers that she is a two foot six troll who usually lives under the Manhattan Bridge and doesn’t speak English. Concerned as he is, his friends apparently don’t understand the problem and become offended when he kicks her after she tries to bite his leg.

“The Adventure of the Spotted Tie” is about Holmes and Watson. While Holmes can tell with a glance that Watson has lost money at the dog track that day, he is completely unable to understand why a spotted tie would have appeared in the overnight bag of his girlfriend Alyssa. While Watson thinks it’s obvious, the great detective is stumped, theorising that someone must be trying to subvert the fabric tariff by smuggling clothes into the country.

“Wishes” has a woman come home to find her husband in talks with a genie, having used up forty-eight of his fifty wishes for sex, with the genie on hand to dole out some wise words about the nature of men.

“Unprotected” is, perhaps, the gem, and the first story in the collection. It is told from the point of view of a condom (yes, that’s right) who lives inside a wallet with his friends Learner Permit, Blockbuster Video, Visa and the dollars, who keep coming and going. It’s a brilliant creation, that character, who when told by MetroCard what his purpose in life is states, “I am too embarrassed to admit truth, which is that I thought I was a balloon.”

Alongside this fantastically naive condom, we also find Charles Darwin figuring out natural selection, a man getting maried to Mother Teresa, the Sex Aliens from Planet Sex, a hip-hop loving Cupid, modern day sirens, Santa Claus avoiding his “marriage of convenience” and, of course, the titular last girlfriend on Earth.

A great collection and worth a read for anyone who is or thinks they might be in love.