A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales
By Josh Emmons
Dzanc Books (April 18, 2017)
184 pages, $16.95
Reviewed by Alyssa Gillon

In his debut collection of wonderfully strange stories, A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales, Josh Emmons sends us off to ride murky waves of human motivation, desire, and ethics. “What’s down there?” we ask when something bumps our canoe and sends us spinning through the rapids. Readers are fitted with a mystical monocle and given a pat on the back: good luck figuring this one out.

Earnest lessons à la Grimm are the last thing I look for in fiction, but given the collection’s title, I expected stories rife with moral imperative. By the third story, I stopped looking for clear-cut morals and sat back to enjoy the cast of characters as they wobbled on tightropes of desires and pleasure, redemption and social concern. Passing judgement against Emmons’ characters is both unpalatable and impossible. The most prominent moral in the book: mind your own dang business and keep your stink-eye to yourself.

The title story and opener of the collection, “A Moral Tale,” questions the ethics of allegiance and judgement. Bernard moves to France to live with his weed-loving cousin. He judges her lazy, assumes she’s wasting her life, and accuses her of fraud (she uses possibly nonexistent arthritis to get financial support from the government.) After gentle reprimands and subsequent missteps, Bernard attempts to redeem himself with his cousin. An ever-present mime suggests that life plays out without our involvement, without judgement, without our meddling to change things. “The mime gazed steadily into the distance…at an expanse of white that seemed to have no beginning and no end. It was beautiful and hostile.”

Emmons’ rewards and punishments are randomly dealt, and conclusions are unpredictable. I loved the unexpected twists and turns, but some readers might find this less pleasant. If traditional fairy tale morality is what you seek—the noble ones coming out on top, the bad ones strangled—you’ll be frustrated. These stories thwart expectations and instead reflect the way that real life works: totally at random. I enjoyed those stories that included familiar characters with unexpected story lines: “Arising” featuring Adam and Eve’s snake, “Humphrey Dempsey,” the legend of Humpty-Dumpty, and “Nu,” which tied in Egyptian mythology.

“Stargazing” is only 2 pages long: a quickie orgy in a hot tub. Our main character starts to feel weird about it, sick with sweet wine and wonderment at aliens judging her from above. When our girl leaves the party, she snubs the hostess and randomly gets run over. At first I dismissed this story, but it’s stuck with me for weeks. What happens after the story-—is the orgy revealed to the cops who come to recover her body, opening the private party to public critique? Is her death a punishment? While I preferred the longer stories in the collection, the short ones aren’t devoid of meaning.

Emmons’ collection brims with the juice of thwarted romance: divorce, breakups, and tons of cheating. Everyone wants what’s off-limits, unavailable, uninterested. The love triangles and overlapped desires in “Concord” are enough to color code and diagram. Favorable power dynamics, sex and love, the desire for these defines the characters’ paths as they struggle to negotiate their desires in a world of other people’s needs and judgments. There are no absolute, clean, right or wrong answers, no clear victims. Emmons’ stories suggest that to be human is to blunder.

My favorite of the collection, “Sunrise,” features a cheating husband who tries to drown his wife in a lake. He wants to run away to the city with a new woman, one who contrasts his wife’s obedience and dependability. I loved the story because it raised questions about love and whether we deserve it, desire and its root causes, and communication. The husband falters, but his wife reads his murderous intentions and tries to escape. The husband eventually “understands that he has forfeited his right to touch her, that she must abhor him, that his desires embodied by the woman from the city but emanating from a damaged part of himself that differs in degree but not kind from that of other people, are hereafter irrelevant.” Realizing that he’s lost her and is undeserving of her commitment and love, his wife becomes unavailable and so attractive that he falls back in love with her. This story employs fairy tale tropes without a fairy-tale ending: the wife is a martyr, her husband ruled by selfish desires, and the true fiend, the city woman, sophisticated and rude, “with her chin held high, as if posing for a portrait” probably gets away with everything.

On a sentence level this collection really shines. Emmons is precise and quick-witted, doesn’t smack us with the thesaurus or ask us to wallow in drawn-out prose. His words bewitch; we suspend disbelief willingly and follow him into strange places and some recognizable fairytale landscapes. He explores heavy topics with a deft hand and sly humor, and he is unsympathetic towards his characters, allowing him to punish randomly, and dole out undue rewards. But wait: are they rewards? Are they punishments? Heck if I know.