In Transitory, Tobias Carroll's stellar debut collection of stories from Civil Coping Mechanisms, art is the dark star around which its satellites of broken artists orbit. The men and women who make the weird films and stark soundtracks that populate Transitory are permitted some degree of detachment. Not so their audience of obsessives.
"Everything about it seemed truncated: there was a ghost of a note in the opening credits that seemed absent; the title itself—A Hoax Cantata—hovered a beat too briefly, the text wavering and elliptical. Maybe that was what first drew us to it: its damage; the unknown names; the fact that it always seemed to exist in a hazy VHS world, a dub of a dub even in its first generation."
Carroll could easily be talking about the cult of admirers that's sprung up around Netflix's nostalgia-fueled series Stranger Things. It's not the film itself that's important, but its elusive existence, how it flickers on the edge of memory, impossible to pin down. For the obsessive protagonist of "Last Screening of A Hoax Cantata," there is no last screening, only nostalgia for something he's not even sure exists.
"The right film can colonize you," the narrator says. This all-invasive possession takes many shapes in Carroll's inspired collection: film, music, even people.
In the story "An Old Songwriter's Trick" a filmmaker named Owen uses his obsessive love for a friend as the premise of a film. Although he's never been able to confess his feelings in real life, to borrow a phrase from the parlance of simulated conversations, he uses his film to make his intentions clear.
While Carroll's prose is dense and occasionally just shy of baroque, it always moves. "Transit always reminds me of transit," says the narrator of "Winter Montage, Hoboken Station," and it's no accident that the title of Owen's film is Transit.
Like Transitory's haunted characters, Carroll's writing is like a restless camera's eye taking in everything it surveys. Consider this description of an empty motel swimming pool: "From the second floor, it seemed like a giant's grave, waiting to be filled."
Carroll is particularly good at capturing uncertain moods and moments between moments. "Yannick made a sound that was equally ecstatic and pained, the action of someone who could deeply emphasize with the idea of almost."
There's an especially poignant scene during which Owen, the protagonist of "An Old Songwriter's Trick," realizes the object of his obsession is engaged to be married. "Shit, he said, and got a particular sort of smile on his face, the kind of look I imagine prison athletes get on ersatz ballfields after hitting a double."
These sharply drawn observations serve as a bulwark against the bleakness that suffuses Carroll's stories in a way that is both relentless and relatable. It's the palpable sadness of missing a train, falling out of touch with a friend, or walking home in a strange city after having too much to drink. As the narrator of "Dulcimers Played, Strings Played" suggests: "For now there was nothing left but to walk into the night with no anchor, his walk the only certainty."
At the end of the book, Carroll chronicles the origins of the stories and how they came into being in a section called "Liner Notes + Credits." I suspect Carroll included this section as a way of paying homage to the music from which he borrowed a title or that inspired him during the story's composition. However, in this section, we learn that he "first came to New York to study fall in the fall of 1995."
Carroll clearly is one of the colonized, but unlike the indie and outsider artists who create the urtexts of Transitory's stories only to fade from memory almost instantly, Carroll's passion for writing can be found in virtually every corner of the Internet where literature and books matter. He is a tireless champion of other people's work: the very best kind of obsessive.
For Carroll's fans, the story doesn't end with the last tale in Transitory, which if the "Liner Notes + Credits" is to believed was written in a Starbucks. Next month, Rare Bird Books will release Carroll's debut novel, Reel, which begins at a punk show in Seattle and continues Carroll's fascination with art, music and the call of the road, the desire to transition from station to station. Perhaps transit reminds us of transit because it's the call that's hardest to ignore.