I was kind of stunned when I opened Ben Stroud’s Byzantium for the first time to discover that I would be reading a story about a 28-year-old shut-in with a withered hand who lived during Heraclius’ reign over the Byzantine Empire. I don’t read much historical fiction, it’s true, but that doesn’t mean I’m completely unaware it exists. You could say I have a certain bias against it, in that whenever it comes to selecting something from the bookshelf, my eyes tend to glide over the historical fiction offerings without even registering their titles. But that’s also not to say that whenever I do happen to be reading historical fiction, I don’t find myself enjoying it, because often I do. I suppose I detected an audacity, and it was the audacity that surprised me: Stroud was going to try to bring the Byzantine Empire to life within the spatial ‘constraints’ of a short story, and on top of that attempt to weave a completely engrossing, suspenseful tale of a young recluse tasked with gelding a monk, for a reader with a pitifully deplete historical background.
Part of the complete pleasure and brilliance in Byzantium is the consistent level of adventurousness in the choices of settings and characters that Stroud makes. That it’s (almost) a disappointment when Stroud decides to tell stories with contemporary settings about characters whom I’ve more or less met in my actual life, speaks to the vivid, addictive immersion throughout the rest of the book.
I would expect a less skilled writer to either a) not attempt such a feat at all, or b) approach the subject matter with an overwrought, and therefore false (and therefore ruinous), style. Stroud’s major accomplishment (well, one of many) is how his unassuming language is immediately recognizable to any reader. The effect of transportation is instantaneous. See how Stroud brings to life Heraclius’ legendary Chamber of the Golden Meadow so that it just seems like another room:
The room glittered with gold. A stream ran through its middle, bounded by golden shrubs hung with carnelian fruits, silver briars hooked with thorns. High green trees of mosaic climbed the walls to the ceiling, where light fell from shafts and a sun glided on a circuit. In the center of the ceiling’s vault, God stared down, His hair flowing, His eyes gleaming in angry judgment.
What is particularly striking about this description, to me, are how there are certainly expected phrases here—“glittered with gold,” “light fell from shafts”—and yet these expected phrases, (some might even call them clichés,) add to the immersion. Yes, I’ve seen gold glitter, at least in books, and I’ve seen shafts of light, but I have never seen the Chamber of the Golden Meadow, about as foreign a room as I could possibly imagine, and with such an unexpected clarity and factuality until now, thanks to these phrases. It seems like a significant achievement in how this immersion remains consistent throughout the stories, and with settings and time periods as varied as ancient Byzantine, nineteenth century Havana, sixteenth century Mexico, and contemporary Texas (just to name a few), allows the reader to switch from one time period to another without ever feeling disoriented. Besides, the immersion that Stroud creates through this deceptively obvious language is the key to the profound morality of these stories since, without feeling like we can see the Chamber of the Golden Meadow as clearly as Eusebios, how can we connect with his moral struggle and its implications for us as readers?
I mentioned earlier that the more contemporary stories could be disappointing, only in that, after reading about a private investigator in slave-labored Havana or about an explorer searching for silver mines as an assignment from the Royal Audiencia, a story about an existentially lost American academic in Germany can seem kind of quaint, lacking imagination and adventure. But the mix of historic and contemporary settings and characters lends to how Stroud track’s morality through history. It may be difficult for some readers to empathize with the moral implications in missions such as severing a monk’s testicles or feeding the troops of a separatist pre-Civil War American colonel, but when those same missions are compared to, say, delivering shingles to roofers in East Texas or sleeping with a war widow in contemporary Germany while estranged from one’s wife still living in the States, it becomes much clearer to contemporary readers how the choices we make are infused with historical significance.
Stroud’s characters wrestle with issues of power and reputation: most of them are prompted to do things they don’t really want to do for fear of losing favor with those in power—emperors, viceroys, generals, and businessmen. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, most of these stories end on unrepentant notes, with the characters morally compromised in one way or another. To be sure, Stroud is making a large claim about history here, about how the decisions that people make, however historically significant or deeply personal, create the unrepentant historical narrative as we know it. Not to mention it’s difficult to read one monk’s disparaging of Constantinople as a “pit of sin” borne from that city’s material comforts in “Byzantium” without considering it, at least in part, an indictment of the spiritual emptiness in American consumer culture. It’s an even spookier condemnation when another monk observes that Heraclius “is a blind beast, thinking ever trembling leaf the read of a hunter, and he feels not the world shifting beneath him.” How can we ignore history when these same sins and fears trouble us still? Can we not see that the same lack of repentance seen throughout these stories, whether ancient or contemporary, implicates us in our historical moment just the same?
Putting aside these significant issues of historical shame, it’s perhaps most important to note that Byzantium is simply chockfull of excitement. These aren’t highly mannered domestic short stories (well, maybe one is), but rather yarns, tales, and moral quests driven by genre (mystery, science fiction, crime, even fantasy to a small degree) and studded with perfect totems of significance—a withered hand, Mountain Dew, meat biscuits, the severed head of a slave. Combine these profound moral issues with the one-hundred-percent absolute joy of reading these stories, and you have a fantastic debut collection of stories from a deeply feeling and purposeful writer.
Byzantium, by Ben Stroud. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, forthcoming. 192 pages. $15.00, paper.
Michael Goroff lives in Columbus, Ohio. His reviews and interviews have appeared in or are forthcoming from The Southeast Review, Whiskey Island, and Barn Owl Review.