Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives by Brad Watson

Posted: September 10, 2010 in Book Reviews
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If you’re wondering whether or not Brad Watson’s collection, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, has extraterrestrials in it, the answer is yes.

Kind of.

The encounter doesn’t occur until the end of the collection, in the title story.  Here, an unexpected pregnancy forces a teenage couple to secretly marry and rent an attic apartment in the sketchy part of town.  One night, after his new wife, Olivia, has expressed her displeasure with the way things worked out, the narrator awakes to find an old couple in the apartment.  They identify themselves as aliens and ask if they can have the child once it is born.

Now, the apartment is located near a mental institution and the narrator, who has been drinking and suffering from heat exhaustion, rationalizes that he has seen this couple wandering its grounds.  In an attempt to get them to leave, he agrees to make them the child’s godparents.  This sets off a string of events where that lead to the couple’s eventual happiness.

Until the narrator wakes up in a hospital bed, greeted by a nurse and doctor that remind him of the aliens from his apartment.

Though the awakening is a surprise—a shock, really—it’s not a surprise ending.  A twist like this runs the risk of abandoning a reader, but Watson avoids that pitfall for a variety of reasons.  First, the story clocks in at over seventy pages and by the time this scene takes places, about two-thirds of the way through, he’s already put in the leg work of creating a character worth caring about.  As a reader, you have to finish the story to know find out what happens (and what happened to get to this point).

Second, Watson’s dreamlike descriptions and compelling details—a patient of the institution hunts imaginary lions, and then the young couple comes face-to-face with one—setup the possibility for absurd and unlikely occurrences.  Plus, it’s not the first time Watson has his readers suspending their disbelief.

The young girl, impregnated by either her father or one of her brothers, seems to materialize in her neighbor’s yard after a tornado rips through Alabama in “Water Dog God.”  In that story, Watson blends matter-of-fact delivery with passages of lyrical mysticism that create tension through tone and language, in addition to its content.

“Understand, we are in a wooded ravine, a green, jungly gash in the earth, surrounded by natural walls.  This land between the old mines and a town, it’s wooden canyons cut by creeks that wind around and feed a chain of quiet little lakes on down to ours, where the water deepens, darkens, and pours over the spillway onto the slated shoals.  From there it rounds a bend down toward the swamps, seeps back into the underground river.  The cicadas spool up so loud you think there’s a torn seam in the air through which their shrieking slipped from another world.”

The main way the twist in the title story works is because of what takes place after the awakening.  While the narrator imagined a happy life for Olivia and him, she (who slept, dreamt, and woke simultaneously with him) envisioned a life with the narrator, illustrating the primary theme that binds these stories together: alienation.  The contrasting dreams illustrate the incongruity between the couple’s subconscious ideas of happiness.  Their parents act immediately, forcing the teens to get the marriage annulled.  Olivia is sent away, and the two become so estranged it’s like they never met.

Alienation and estrangement come in many forms in these stories.  Often the narrators and focal characters aren’t given names.  In the title story, we aren’t given the narrator’s name until the last few pages, which creates a sense of distance between reader and character, one of the ways Watson blends form and content throughout this book.  In the opening piece, “Vacuum,” three boys terrorize their mother to the point where she threatens to walk out on them.  The boys are only identified by their birth order, not by name, because their names aren’t important.

This is a story about a housewife who has to raise her children singlehandedly, while her husband is constantly away on business.  The story touches on issues such as race, gender, and how men can act like little boys, but it sets the tone for the rest of the book with the way it stresses how important a father figure can be.  These boys are so disconnected from their father that Watson doesn’t give them personal identities.

Same goes for the story “Terrible Argument.”  Here a married couple, identified only by the terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’ (even the dog remains nameless), verbally and physically attack each other so often it’s a wonder why they’re even together.  The man fears loneliness over misery, which causes him to take drastic measures when she threatens to leave him.

Watson excels in showcasing expansive rifts between characters by having them talk around their problems or avoid direct acknowledgement of them altogether.  In “Carl’s Outside,” a married couple side step their marital problems in an attempt to solve more immediate and fixable ones.  Their son, Carl, has been acting out in school, and Ben, the father, thinks his behavior is related to their family troubles.  Instead of taking to Carl about it, Ben tries to teach his son how to ride a bike.

Loomis, the father in “Visitation,” finds it even more difficult to talk to his son, years after he separated from his wife.  On one of his regular visits to see the boy, he worries that he’s no longer capable of protecting his son.  When verbally reassuring the boy doesn’t work, Loomis drinks and seeks the help of a palm reader.

Theme connects the various styles of story, from traditional to experimental.  “Ordinary Monsters,” which consists of six vignettes, provides readers with snapshots of people (and animals) coming to terms with who (or what) they really, but they avoid direct communication about the important issues.  Alone, it’s a quirky little story, but it seems more significant when included among the rest of the collection.  Which can be said of the whole book.  These stories stand on their own nicely, but as a whole they play off each other and the connected themes in the same way songs on a concept album work better when listened to in succession rather than hearing them individually on the radio.

W.W. Norton
March 22, 2010

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