By Alex Behr
7.13 Books, October 12, 2017
222 pages, $15.99
Reviewed by Katya Ellis
Reading Alex Behr’s debut short story collection Planet Grim feels like one giant, twisted roller-coaster ride—with each story comes a fresh perspective, twisting and looping readers through the gritty edges of Behr’s unique imagination.
A collection of twenty eight stories which portray life on the peripheries of San Francisco and Portland, Planet Grim is true to its name: Behr does not shy away from the grotesque, littering her stories with images of liquid hash-filled condoms, blood-spattered aquariums and rotting crow heads. Through these unusual images as well as her talent for creating equally unusual and complex characters, Behr successfully transports the reader. Behr’s array of wild, foul, and borderline horrific imagery may be hard to swallow, but it creates the raw and emotionally engaging vignettes of day-to-day life.
Behr’s minimalist style leads to a transparency in the stories: her language and diction is simple and straightforward, easy for readers to feel in touch with characters’ thoughts and resonate with their emotions. The simplistic style flowing throughout the collection also causes the grotesque aspects to starkly stand out, allowing them to become powerful images within the stories. In “The Scorpion,” clear dialogue and short, similarly-structured sentences are offset by the image of Jake’s “blood and piss form[ing] a misshapen angel on the rug.” It creates a shocking and powerful effect which prevails throughout the collection. In Planet Grim, Behr does not hold back, taking her readers to darker, wilder places without restraint.
Some stories are grimmer than others. While I enjoyed the more raw and gritty stories, the ones which resonated most were stories like “The Garden,” with its poignant depiction of loss. While many of Behr’s stories depict detached characters struggling to make connections, “The Garden” highlights the emotional intensity of human connection through its compelling portrayal of a widow navigating her grief through tending to her mother-in-law’s garden. The image of pulled “roots of the sunflowers bulg[ing] with dirt, all that effort for a brief gasp towards the sky” is heartbreakingly poetic as Behr draws connections between the cyclical patterns present in both nature and life. “The Garden” is Behr at her best, showcasing her ability to depict the intricacies of interpersonal relationships in an intimate and realistic way.
Like most debut collections, some stories fit into Planet Grim better than others. Though I enjoyed most of Behr’s stories, some felt abrupt and out of place, like “My Martian Launderette,” which transports readers from San Francisco to Mars in the blink of an eye. Since Planet Grim is centered around location, the sudden change of scenery marks an abrupt, unsettling shift within the collection. However, Behr’s use of common themes, imagery, and narrative techniques thread the stories together and help soften the discord.
If you’re looking for something refreshing, different, and undoubtedly exciting—look no further than this collection. Behr’s unconventional imagery and beautiful, minimalistic tone set the stage for a truly eccentric debut collection. Planet Grim pushes the limits of the imaginable and takes readers on an ever-expanding, sometimes horrifying, yet always entertaining journey, leaving us all wondering just where Behr might take us next.