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Spotlight on: Compositions for the Young and Old by Paul G. Tremblay

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Compositions for the Young and Old by Paul G. Tremblay Paul G. Tremblay, Compositions for the Young and Old

In the introduction to Paul Tremblay's debut collection, Jeffrey Thomas describes the reasoning behind the specific order of the stories: "The earliest stories herein take the viewpoint of children, the last told from the perspective of people in their waning days, and between lie the years that form the twisty path between cradle and grave." Purple prose, to be sure, but he gets the point across: Tremblay has ordered his Compositions for the Young and Old according to "the chronological arc of a human life."

That would be fascinating enough in itself as a concept, but Tremblay follows through with a cache of tales that provoke both thought and emotion, and show his comfort with portraying all seven ages of man. (The title references a track off of Bob Mould's debut solo album, Workbook.)

Some of the stories are better than others, of course, but one must admire his ability to get into the minds of characters and present their stories believably. The best Compositions for the Young and Old are those where Tremblay uses his specialty: a self-conscious style of speaking to the reader that is familiar and comforting. It allows the reader a glimpse of the author's personality that makes it easy for him to lead us into the unexpected -- into a tale like "Walls" with its organic surrealism combined with social commentary -- and make us go willingly and unquestioningly.

Tremblay also showcases his skill at rethinking cultural icons, such as Ty Cobb (if you don't cringe during "Hackin' at the Peach," check your vital signs) and Mark Twain ("So Many Things Left Out" gives new meaning to the phrase "dead narrative"). Focusing on John Cage's infamous composition, the definition of art takes a tumble in "4'33," showing the sometimes brutal effect one artist's work can have on another's. "Annabel Leigh" is less than totally successful, but only because its ambition is so high. Otherwise, it's a fine "haunted house" gothic that references Poe without copying his style.

"The Harlequin and the Train" all but jumped out at me. Its combination of the mundanity of life onboard an MBTA commuter train with absolute out-of-left-field weirdness makes for a fascinating read. The phrase "insanity is when everything makes sense" summarizes the feeling I had while reading, of all places, onboard an MBTA commuter train. "The Jar" harkens back to the classics of the horror genre, tainted-object tales like "The Monkey's Paw", but with the tone and subtlety of a Twilight Zone episode. My favorite, though, is "Perception." It begins as one kind of story, told in a satiric tone, and then slowly becomes another through a twist that plays with the reader's own perceptions. This is metafiction at its finest.

My only real complaint is with the efficacy of the story order. Compositions for the Young and Old is a terrific title and an original concept but I would have ordered the stories by theme instead of life stage. This is mainly because the last story, "Colonel Evans' Last Mission," is a real downer (in addition to being too long) and that would not be the mood I would want my readers to carry away with them. Rather to end on a more upbeat note with "The Jar" and fit the good Colonel next to a moodier story like "Reaching."

Careful reading reveals that Tremblay has a literary style above and beyond the usual spoon-feeder prose. He could be published in The New Yorker if he were writing about adulterous suburbanites instead of exploding clowns and unanesthetized tonsil removal. Even his prose poems speak to a part of my brain normally shut off to that method of expression, allowing concepts such as a staircase-as-guilt metaphor to seep through unimpeded. I don't know if Tremblay's high-minded mathematics education has anything to do with this but, based on the contents of Compositions for the Young and Old, I'm very curious to see what he could do with a novel.

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