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Tales of Accidental Genius: Stories


Tales of Accidental Genius: Stories

Simon Van Booy weaves a collection of short stories linked by the common thread of “accidental genius.” He finds this accidental genius in random acts of kindness, in coincidences and small ironies, and within the inspiration that sometimes emerges from personal tragedies so encompassing and commonplace that something pure must occasionally grow from them. His writing is measured, even, and braves many different scenarios: a quiet London street, a pet store, a retirement facility, and the streets of Ningbo, China.

In the first story, a man who now prefers to keep his layered past to himself finds himself letting down his defenses to come to the aid of someone who previously irked him. Later, two people in a retirement home live within a tragic yet predictable misunderstanding, and a woman learns the truth about what her husband did during a particularly turbulent point in their marriage. My personal favorite involves the quiet heartbreak of an elderly man’s mishaps in “The Goldfish.”

"Overall, I expected tales of accidental genius. What I received was a collection of well-written, fairly unsurprising stories that did move me on occasion, but did not necessarily transport or transform the way a short story should."

Ultimately, there is nothing necessarily revelatory here. The collection’s title seems to oversell or misguide readers slightly: I would be startled to discover that I’m in the minority for finding most of the messages of “genius” here decidedly predictable. Van Booy seems to have set out to write stories centered on the idea that something momentous exists in the mundane, that everyday people have the capacity to experience something close to miraculous. While this is a noble endeavor, it’s also one of the basics of writing a short story. A short story conveys a profound and layered narrative message through a setting and structure that can be handled and wrapped up in a small selection of pages. To find “genius” in a lost goldfish or an inspired machine --- this is what a short story must do, if the author chooses those subjects. Van Booy does so adequately, but without the nuance or sensitivity to truly title these tales of accidental genius as opposed to, perhaps, tales of decent intellect or tales of basic kindness. It seems a rather basic idea on which to center a collection and never seems to transcend that impression.

Furthermore, perhaps some readers will enjoy the lengthy, prose-poem “screenplay” that is the final story of the book. It is a moving story, carefully written. However, it makes up three-fifths of the entire collection, and the prose-poem style seems to be executed with little purpose to the intricacies, a perhaps misguided attempt to parallel the Chinese style that reads rather clunkily in translation. Line breaks and page breaks are chosen fairly arbitrarily, and though it doesn’t impede reading rhythm too much, it does little to add to the narrative. Altogether, given that it is set in Ningbo, China --- the country of Van Booy’s ancestors, which he himself has visited and researched thoroughly, but has never lived or learned a dialect --- it is not easy to take this tale as genuine.

Van Booy heavily relies on tropes of the local culture and socioeconomic setting, and it is not always easy to hear his voice craft the dialogue for characters in rural China. It never feels truly authentic, and while it’s absolutely crucial to elevate nonwhite voices as they tell their own stories --- and I commend Van Booy for taking on the task of elevating the narratives of his ancestors --- I did not come away from the story with a sense of empathy or respect. I wondered instead why Van Booy chose to tell a story that doesn’t explore character or culture except in the service of what is a fairly predictable plot. The story is lovely, but the chosen form and its execution make it hard to follow and ultimately hard to understand why it takes up so much of the book.

Overall, I expected tales of accidental genius. What I received was a collection of well-written, fairly unsurprising stories that did move me on occasion, but did not necessarily transport or transform the way a short story should. I hope future readers have a more revelatory experience, and I hope the next time I pick up a Van Booy collection, I am more pleasantly surprised.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on December 11, 2015

Tales of Accidental Genius: Stories
by Simon Van Booy

  • Publication Date: November 10, 2015
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0062408976
  • ISBN-13: 9780062408976