EVERYTHING IS TOTALLY FINE, a fiction collection by Zac Smith, reviewed by Michael G. Barilleaux

Everything Is Totally Fine by Zac Smith is a short fiction experience like few others in independent literature. What’s perhaps most engaging about Smith’s collection is not just that it proves its anxiety ridden title to be entirely ironic, but rather that it gives us a chance to reflect on the reality of this irony while also delivering a sense of joy and distraction from it. Smith’s use of humor, brevity, and ulterior storytelling are more than enough to keep us engaged in a sometimes casual and truly sincere way while not simply stating that everything is or isn’t totally fine. Rather, Smith examines how it is alternatively both.

Separated into three primary sections, the range and effect of the stories can be viewed in more than one different way. For example, many stories have an underlying sense of dread outlining a rather pessimistic perspective of the place each of us holds in this world. This is shown in stories such as “Everything Is Totally Fucked 2,” where the first outcome of the story is tragic as the narrator’s former classmate is burnt to death in a car crash, but the second and overarching outcome is in some ways even more tragic—the fact that the narrator is more focused on his hair length than the first outcome. In a similar but much more subtle way, “White Zinfandel 2” finds the idea of waking up near the river while covered in vomit and popcorn to be a seemingly average start to one’s day.

Several of the other stories, however, while still generating the same negative sense, seem to direct their primary attention toward balancing a simultaneous humor and hopeful sentiment. A story such as “Savoring the Single Mulberry That Cracked the Earth in Half” focuses on the situation being described with a strong bent toward what is humorous. For while this story playfully mocks optimism in general with the lines, “Think about the future. Think about tomorrow. Think about eating yogurt and living a good life,” it also promotes more humor in the same breath by really knocking the happy-go-lucky optimism that we as people are often sold (and quite literally at times).

Both story types found in Everything Is Totally Fine are abundantly effective at leaving a lasting mark on us. Further, both types accomplish this feat interestingly and dynamically, across different subjects and tones. Take “The Literary Agent,” for example, a story that breathes sadness and empathy into the trope of a rich man with cancer to achieve a tone that is both realistic and whimsical, and which conveys a dark and almost uncanny feeling of depression throughout. Stories like “Going Out,” however, employ basic content and tone-driven framing to add an element of humor, which aids in taking the story along an entirely new path. Another technique that is similar to stream of consciousness but is a bit more calculated can be seen in the story “I Am Going to Burn Down the Mall of America,” where a heavy dose of commas aids in keeping pace with the racing thoughts of its narrator.

The end result coalesces into a whole that makes for a potently sad, highly entertaining, and, at times, flat-out silly reading experience, and is one that is deeply felt and inevitably more complex than we might assume upon first glance. This complexity is predominantly a facet of the way Smith winds these heavy feelings as well as other aspects of everyday life together into an overdrive of slippery irony. Smith is certainly not the first to concoct such a mixture of emotional states and those individual aspects that help define them, but he does it with seemingly so little to work with in each story, particularly in terms of length and room for other common storytelling tools such as character development.

While everything may or may not be totally fine, there are certainly a few aspects of this book that could use a bit of tweaking. These are not entirely practical in some respects, considering the publishing process a book undergoes, and what Smith has created here already tends to defy a good deal of convention in ways relating to story length, select uses of punctuation, vignette style, and more. Still, we might like to see his work in the future push even more against some well-trod territory that does not seem particularly disruptive or risky. For example, while there is without a doubt already a great deal of strangeness peppered about Everything Is Totally Fine, instead of cutting the story extra short as in “Dog in the World,” perhaps further development of the dog’s travels rather would have been more welcome than only focusing on the making a car out of cardboard.

It may also be worth noting that some aspects of Smith’s style are a bit reminiscent of Tao Lin’s, author of such indie fixtures as Taipei and more recently Leave Society, as well as the publisher of Muumuu House, the small press behind Everything Is Totally Fine. This is particularly shown in the overall sincere but sometimes awkward tone of Smith’s writing. Regardless of this apparent influence, however, Smith’s unique approach to storytelling, such as his ability to contrast relevant themes effectively and entertainingly from one short story to the next, makes looking at a world that is so fraught with strife and disappointment—the pandemic-fraught, war-stricken world around us—just a little bit easier to stomach. Smith does not set out to boil down our complex natures or propose grand solutions to existence, but rather finds value in inspecting it from all angles and allowing us to digest it all concisely and thoughtfully.

Everything Is Totally Fine, by Zac Smith. Muumuu House, January 2022. 152 pages. $14.00, paper.

Michael G. Barilleaux is a writer from the Cincinnati area. His fiction and poetry has been featured in publications such as Great Ape, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and The Burning Palace poetry newsletter. He has also written criticism for online music outlets such as RapReviews.com.

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