Two of the stories in The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios are merely sophomoric experiments in narrative style. “Manners of Dying” consists of nine versions of a letter from a prison warden to the mother of an executed man, detailing what he ate, how he reacted, whether he spoke to a minister, etc. It is a tedious conceit in questionable taste.
In “The Vita Aeterna Mirror Company,” a young man discovers his grandmother’s machine that creates mirrors out of memories. However, because he does not value those memories, he recounts them as “blah blah blah” on the left side of the page, giving his bored reactions on the right side. Predictably, the silly man in this silly story finally realizes that his grandmother was wiser than he thought.
The title story is a Boccaccio-inspired novella about a young man whose friend is dying of AIDS. To cope with grief and despair, they create a game whereby they make up stories about the invented Roccamatio family living in Helsinki. The “facts” are chosen from history for each year of the twentieth century, and the reader becomes so interested in them that the slow death of the young friend seems sadly secondary.
Perhaps the most engaging story, because less beset by cheap tricks (except for the title), is “The Time I heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton.” A young Canadian man goes to a memorable concert by a group of Vietnam veterans in Washington, D.C., and afterwards has a revealing conversation with the composer, a night janitor.
However, generally, these are amateurish literary games by a writer trying to find a successful narrative gimmick, which he does in Life of Pi (2001).
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