Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France, by Bryan Hurt. Buffalo, New York: Starcherone Books, October 2015. 192 pages. $16.00, paper.
Not too long ago, I read of a city in France that installed short story dispensers, a reason to travel to the country even if one is not, say, the ambassador to the country, a career I had not considered before reading Bryan Hurt’s debut collection. Thankfully, readers do not have to use a short story dispenser to read Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France, because if they did, they would be anxiously pressing the same button over and over until all seventeen stories in the collection had been dispensed and then quickly and hungrily consumed.
True to the book’s title, many of Hurt’s characters look to France for their answers, especially at the beginning of the collection. In the opening story, “The Beast of Marriage,” a rich man adopts two daughters and moves to France, where he will make one of the girls his wife. “But in France nobody had a good time,” Hurt writes on page one, in one of his short, wry sentences, in the nonchalance with which a character later says the title of the collection as a cold, hard fact. In “Honeymoon,” nobody has a good time in France either. On their romantic getaway, a couple goes to Paris, then the south of France, and then, after an unfortunate occurrence, the hospital, meeting men of the same name in each location. And in “The Billingual School,” a group of mothers worry about their children, who, after being enrolled in a new school, act differently. They make existentialist dioramas, refuse to do homework because they are on strike, and wear stereotypical berets.
After three stories about France, readers may ask themselves if all the stories in the collection are about the country, as I asked myself after reading the opening trio. My question was then answered with “My Other Car Drives Itself,” a story that highlights all the best components of the collection, showing the author’s command of plot, language, and character. The story is about a man who works on Google’s chase team that perfects the technology of self-driving cars. It starts with research, the history of the idea back in the nineteenth century, quickly moving to comedy with laugh-out-loud mishaps as the narrator sweats over meeting with Google’s CEO Larry Page, one of many recognizable names who drop in on stories in the collection, and navigates an affair with a graduate student at Stanford. From there, in small, fast-moving parts, the story shows its heart, with characters opening up their hopes and hesitations in a mélange of fun, quotable one-liners and bedroom whispers borrowed from Emerson poems. There is beauty in the simplicity of Hurt’s prose, equal parts aphoristic and affecting, not one word there that hasn’t earned its place on the page.
As offbeat and imaginative Hurt’s stories may be, I don’t know the last time I read a collection of fiction that was so well-researched. And even when the collection’s stories are historical, based on the lives of famous (and thoroughly studied and Wikipedia-ed) subjects, like astronomer Tycho Brahe, for example, the reader is surprised by the speculative qualities they have, as histories are rewritten and the stories ask what-if questions of the past that readers may foolishly not have considered, like the age-old question: What if Tycho Brahe had had a moose, “but not a moose exactly”? Because what if the moose, in fact, was not a moose, but an elk? And it had saved a king from drowning? And so on and so on. In this collection, sixteenth-century Denmark, with its royalty in their castles, is treated with the same entertained and even-handed prose as contemporary Los Angeles, with its self-driving cars and celebrities. This treatment, a mix of research and whimsical invention, is also given to everybody from the fourth man to walk on the moon to, as the story’s title says, “All of the Artic Explorers,” explorers from Ancient Greeks to nineteenth-century Europeans. The collection’s cast of characters is staggering, spanning the entire world and thousands of years.
And so it’s no surprise when, halfway through the collection, Hurt has a panic attack, in a story of the same name that starts with an e-mail from two editors about the author’s stories, how the editors “enjoyed” them, but in the end, they “do not have as much emotional depth as [they] are looking for.” Humorously and self-referentially, Hurt then crosses out his ideas for stories, stories that appeared earlier in the book, about time travel (“Spooky Action at a Distance”) and zombies (“Some Zombies”). In a meeting with the same editors, Hurt suggests a story about sad pirates, to which the editor replies: “I like the sad part. Sadness is real.” The panic attack is short, as is the story, but it’s bold, a playful interruption of the regularly scheduled stories. The collection owns the absurdity of its subjects, playing with genre and what makes a story “real,” regardless of what editors have to say.
In many ways, Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France is like the flag of the titular country, minimalistic, but with a strong, recognizable design. It’s friendly and familiar, but at the same time, it’s foreign, rich with a history you think you understand through pop culture and personal experience. But when you study it, when you think about what you know, it becomes wonderfully unfamiliar, new and affecting, making you cry with laughter with one line and sit alone in quiet contemplation with the next. This collection plants a flag on the moon, an accomplishment and a celebration, saying, like the astronaut in one of its stories, “I’m here. I’m here.”
Zachary Kocanda studies creative writing at Ball State University. He has been published in The Blue Route, Gravel, Glittermob, and Black Mirror Magazine.