Monday, June 2, 2014

Justice Inc., A review

Justice Inc., A review

Justice, Inc., the new short story collection by Dale Bridges, came to me in the most unusual way. I suppose it might have been a very unusual way had the book come to me via zombie messenger, Omni-Mart International official courier or tucked in between the brassiere and the luscious breasts of a human simulation. And after reading the book, as unsettling of a thought as it might be, I questioned the very existence the doomed world that perhaps is dominated by the Smith and Johnson Corporation as Dale Bridges has suggested in Justice Inc. Truth is, Dale sent my a copy of his manuscript, and asked me very nicely if I'd read.
Justice, Inc. - Front Cover
In many ways, being an editor of a literary magazine, and in my case, Umbrella Factory Magazine, is not a particularly sexy job. It's oftentimes boring, sometimes too boring and that is offset in the days leading up to publication when deadlines threaten loss of sleep and hairlines. More often than not, my experience with the writers we run at UFM is brief. After we accept a story, we exchange a few emails and that's it. That's the system, and I have the same experience with the magazines where I submit my short stories. Occasionally, and it happens very rarely actually, a writer who I've worked with at UFM will contact me and we get to work together again. This is the situation with Dale Bridges and his upcoming book, Justice Inc.

The opening story “Welcome to the Omni-Mart” sets the mood almost instantly. In fact, you cannot get to the end of the first sentence without knowing that something is not quite right:

Barry wants me to terminate the babies in the morning before the customers arrive, and he’s the District Manager, so that’s what I do.

In many ways, the first sentence of this story really sets up the mood for the entire short story in the same way that the first story sets you up for the rest of the collection, the rest of the book. Dale Bridges introduces us to Omni-Mart and many societal themes that are ever present within the confines of the world of Justice, Inc. and these themes are perhaps not only in the boundless imagination of the writer himself. Whatever more can I say? Terminating babies was just not really what I expected as I began reading this book.

I've always believed that reading a book is such an intimate experience. It's often a commit of time. After all, when you sit down to read a book, don't you want to emerge from it somehow different than when you started? This may seem like a strange way to define the reading process, but I have to ask, why bother with a book that isn't going to make you see the world, or the human condition, or yourself any differently? I have read books that have made me want to read more. I have read writers who have made me want to read more. Then there are the writers, the rare ones, who make me want to be a better writer. I've met a few of these books over the years: Etgar Keret's The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and Julio Cortazar's Cronopios and Famas and just about everything I've ever read by Philip K. Dick.

It leads us to question what is an original voice? I feel like recent years have given us a wash of bad writing repackaged as new stuff. I mean, you know, the decline of western civilization and the closing of bookstores and the onslaught of homogenized crap parading around as perverts or adolescent vampires. We've seen in recent years a tired economy and this affects books too, after all, a publisher will only run books that sell, it's business. Yet in a time like ours, there is so much more than what we may meet in our neighborhood corporate bookstores. We have seen a rise in small publishers because the on-line marketplace as well as print-on-demand have cut costs for book production. What this means is that the time is right for a printed variety that we have never seen before. It means that small publishers, like Monkey Puzzle Press, can courageously influence the field of American Arts and Letters with books they see as pertinent and necessary. And these books, these writers and these publishers are now making room for voices that we need to hear.

Is Justice Inc. pertinent or necessary? You bet. Thematically there are very pertinent facets to Dale Bridges's work. Many of the stories in this collection reference a major corporation that seems to own everything from production of sundries and girlfriends to the very outlets where customers purchases such items. The weave of the Omni-Mart and Smith and Johnson Corporation in many of these stories become so familiar to the reader that we can't wait to see what these corporations are willing to do next. I don't see how it's much different from the monster corporations we see in our world today.

The arrangement of Justice Inc. is perfection. These are short stories, but to read the book cover to cover—which you can't help doing—that feel like a single narrative. For instance, “The Time Warp Cafe” and “The Generation Gap” are arranged together. In the first story we meet a very compelling character, a teacher named Ferguson, who we might define as an aging Gen X-er. He may well be a Gen-Xer, but because of science, he gets to live for hundreds of years into the future. His students think of him as dated and silly, perhaps the same way we all thought of our teachers. Not surprisingly, Ferguson falls victim to nostalgia, hence the time warped themed restaurant where he dines regularly. The writer puts this story before “The Generation Gap” which also deals with people living too long and the younger generation willing the older generation to simply step aside.

I don't think I'm alone when it comes to the underdogs. Everyone wants to see an underdog win. Isn't that what so many heroes are, underdogs? The underdogs of Justice Inc. come in strange manifestations. Low-level company men are one thing. They are likely heroes, I suspect. When we meet both the narrator, Mr. Omni and his supervisor Barry in “Welcome to the Omni-Mart” don't we already want to see Barry (or perhaps the Omni-Mart system as a whole) go down? We want the narrator, the underdog, to win.

The story “The Girlfriend™” is, in my opinion, greatest achievement of Justice Inc. In this story we meet one such underdog after another. We instantly have empathy for at least two characters. When one of them decides to invest in a “girlfriend” human simulation, our empathy quickly shifts. In a more conventional idea, how do we define human? There are people who define human as anything with a heartbeat. What happens when artificial intelligence becomes more than thinking but feeling too? Can we have empathy for a machine? “The Girlfriend™” challenges our empathetic impulses.

Again, there are the writers we meet who make us think or feel. There are the writers I read who make me want to read more. Then there are the writers like Dale Bridges who make me want to be a better writer.

Buy Justice, INC. here.
 Dale Bridges is writer and journalist living in Austin, Texas. His work has been featured in more than thirty publications, including The Rumpus, The Masters Review, and Barrelhouse Magazine. He has won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for his feature writing, narrative nonfiction, and cultural criticism. His essays and short stories have been anthologized. When he's not writing, he works at a used bookstore. He is currently working on his first novel.

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