Marcus Pactor’s sophomore short story collection, Begat Who Begat Who Begat, explores the deceptively complex topics of mundanity and domesticity through experimentation in both rhizomatic storytelling and narrative form. Over the course of the collection’s 122 pages, Pactor presents 17 stories situated just left of reality. Across varying subjects, such as a toilet that transmutes bowel movements into cryptic gifts, a man poaching the eyes of the roaches that infest his home so he can create a new eye for his son, or a woman taking a very literal inventory of both herself and her body, Pactor manages to create tightly woven, intimate narratives that are completely saturated with dreamlike logic and that are sure to leave us wanting more.
The charm of these uncanny stories is a direct result of how much variance exists in the collection. Pactor paces out our explorations of his multitudinous work in pieces like “Good Fat,” “Harvest,” and “A Good Dog Would Forget,” each written with a didactic bravado, using disarmingly direct language and imparting stores of knowledge—or at least gesturing toward new ways of knowing the world. Conversely, stories like “Put That Thang in It Face” and “Do the Fish” pull us into accounts that are more akin to case studies or questionnaires, positioning us as passive listeners with no ulterior motives besides bearing witness to the dialogues that are unfolding. With each turn of the page, it’s clear Pactor has deliberately sequenced these stories to play off one another, manipulating our closeness—or lack thereof—to each narrative.
But the experimentation in Begat Who Begat Who Begat extends well beyond authorial voice. The aforementioned “Harvest,” for example, makes use of footnotes to complicate its structure. While some of these footnotes link us to eclectic reference materials like DARPA’s YouTube videos or History Channel programming on Ancient Rome, others instead outcrop from the narrative as anecdotes or interjections. The end result is a fragmentary story that spills out beyond the margins—one that can only be fully consumed once we have completed a veritable multimedia scavenger hunt.
Perhaps even more intriguing are the stories “Archaeology of Dad” and “The Remainder” which introduce geometric elements that consistently displace us, all the while layering additional complexity on top. In the former, Pactor invokes the concept of “holes”—opaque, black circles that contain additional factoids, conversational addresses from author to reader, and, at times, truncated stories of their own. One might imagine that these holes would function similarly to the footnotes in “Harvest,” and that would be mostly correct, save for the fact that the sheer visual design of these holes makes them inescapable. Where footnotes intrude little on the actual arrangement of words on the page and can be glossed over with relative ease, Pactor’s holes massively distort the text, at times slicing through almost half the sentences present on the page. In response, we are forced to either conscientiously make the jump from one side of a hole to the other, and to forgo that tangent, or we let the hole swallow us and separate us from the main narrative thread. The holes mirror the way the story’s narrator consistently finds himself derailed by memory as he attempts to wrangle the tall tale of his father’s life and reduce it to a character study. In the end, these holes turn reading “Archaeology of Dad” into a jarring, dissonant experience, regardless of whatever plan of attack we try to employ to overcome it.
“The Remainder” implements geometry in an altogether different fashion. In lieu of circular holes, Pactor instead heralds each segment of the story with a singular, solid, black rectangle. This rectangle—which is ostensibly a closet containing three American daughters—is both the subject of a discussion being held by two mysterious figures, only referred to as Q and P, and an enigmatic focal point for us. Its omnipresence and the early suggestion that it contains people within make it an object of fascination, but Pactor does an expert job of manipulating this curiosity and meting out answers slowly through the ebb and flow of Q and P’s conversation. Put simply, we want to know what the rectangle is, and if it is a door, we want to know what’s behind it, and if it is three American daughters, we want to know what Q and P’s mysterious plans for them are. The key tension of the narrative is almost entirely due to the rectangle’s presence and Pactor’s anticipation of our responses to it.
My favorite piece in the entire collection, though, has to be “A Taste for Eel.” Unlike many of the previously mentioned stories, there is no fourth wall being broken, no footnotes, and no geometry. Instead, the page-and-a-half long piece centers on a man named Bender and his search for a non-Japanese eel dish while he struggles with intrusive thoughts after witnessing the aftermath of a flesh-eating bacteria outbreak in the Gulf of Mexico three years prior. After finally finding the eel he has been craving—which Pactor brilliantly describes as having “the appeal of a blown tire”—Bender returns home where he is immediately seized by the violent throes of food poisoning. Only under the intense effects of this illness does Bender begin to experience any catharsis for the memories that have been plaguing him. Pactor captures this inevitable breakdown so well in the final moments of the story when he writes:
He crawled into the tub, where he stayed for a good while before removing his shoes. Then he felt ready to explain the ways in which he was bereft. He staggered into the hall. His neighbor wouldn’t let him use her phone. Fine, fine, fine. It almost was. He might have said ‘bereft,’ but to whom? He could not remember the pregnant woman’s number, much less her name.
Despite the story’s relatively short length, Pactor manages to successfully define Bender as a complex character and does so through mostly indirect means. Details that may at first come off as indicators of a deadbeat protagonist are transformed into the identifiers of a man haunted by a singular, grotesque experience. Thus, a story that initially reads as eccentric, quirky, and a bit strange becomes a leaden post-traumatic portrait by its closure. If nothing else, “A Taste for Eel” is strong evidence that Pactor doesn’t need to rely on formal gimmicks or authorial tricks to hook us—he is perfectly capable of holding our attention through his skill with the pen alone.
Ultimately, Begat Who Begat Who Begat is a collection that is bound to have something for everyone. Pactor’s experimentations in voice and form keep the experience fresh the entire way through, and the stories themselves are often imbued with a bizarre quality that is certain to arouse interest. If you are a fan of experimental writing, absurdist fiction, or surrealism, be sure to pick up a copy and join with the hunt.
Begat Who Begat Who Begat, by Marcus Pactor. Vermillion, South Dakota: Astrophil Press, November 2021. 122 pages. $16.95, paper.
Maxwell Malone is a horror and weird fiction author from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan currently masquerading as a technical writer on California’s Central Coast. His work has appeared on the award-winning NoSleep Podcast, Chilling Tales for Dark Nights, and various YouTube narration channels. You can find him on Twitter @maxwell_irl.