The eleven stories in Seth Fried’s debut collection, The Great Frustration (Soft Skull Press, May 2011), are as absurd as they are acute, as philosophical as they are adventurous. Fried entertains the speculative and the impossible with elevated details, in settings which seem necessarily ancient and futuristic.
Even the heights of bizarre are eerily familiar as Fried’s true gift is irony, desperation, and a micro-glimpse at human circumstance. Where there is conceit there is foremost incisive commentary. What arrives before the reader is a craft both intelligent and vigorous, and a generous portion of sharp comedic genius. Ultimately, I found myself in the dual frustration of knowing I could never write stories like these, and yet desperately wishing I had. Seth Fried performed the title story at Freerange in August, and will appear this evening at the Franklin Park Reading Series alongside Michael Showalter (Freerange, May ’11) and Emma Straub.
You may know him from his guerilla bookselling trailer or his accidentally viral Hurricane Irene tweet, but The Great Frustration is Freerange’s 2011 must-read. Stunned by this brand-new star, we can’t help feel both maddened and elated by Seth Fried’s exquisite precision: Get the monkey in the capsule.
MRQ: What was the first story you wrote?
SF: The first story I published was “Lie Down and Die” — which appeared in McSweeney’s when I was 21. But my first serious fiction project was an epic Civil War novel that I tried to write the summer I turned 10. If you can imagine a spiral notebook filled with a 10 year-old’s fevered depictions of a war he knew absolutely nothing about (except that there were lots of cannons around and that people slept in tents), then you already have a good idea of what my novel was like. I abandoned the project later that same summer.
MRQ: Did you intend for The Great Frustration to be a short story collection when you started writing? Did the stories come together on purpose?
SF: While I was writing these stories, I just focused on them as individual entities. There was never a moment when I sat down in front of my computer and said, “The Great Frustration … go!” Though, I sometimes do that now for no reason.
The idea for a book called The Great Frustration just sort of occurred to me one day, and then my stories started to organize themselves in my head around that theme. But I don’t think the act of collecting them was artificial or an afterthought. The reason that theme appealed to me is because I felt it suited my stories and brought them all together in an interesting, important way.
MRQ: Would you call yourself an allegorical writer?
SF: I consider myself a fabulist. I like the idea that stories are supposed to have meaning or raise important questions. Fables are great for that. There’s too much emphasis nowadays on whether or not a story is well crafted, and not enough emphasis on whether or not it has anything important to say. I would rather read something that’s really loose craft-wise but that has genuine insight into the human condition than something brilliantly wrought that is only significant because of its form.
MRQ: About “Life in the Harem.” Did you want it to be… surprising?
Not really. I just wanted it to be an examination of the way heterosexual men approach desire in our culture. There is definitely some crazy imagery in the story (penis charts, etc.). But I didn’t introduce those weird elements into the story just to surprise the reader. The craziness in the story reflects the craziness I perceive in the way heterosexual men are encouraged to view women and sex these days. All you have to do is look at beer commercials or deodorant commercials (especially deodorant commercials, which why should that be the case?) to know that our culture is feeding men really bizarre information about how to view their own desire.
MRQ: So tell me about the Animalcula: A Young Scientist’s Guide to New Creatures, which is a reference text of sorts which finishes out the collection.
Oh, you know, it’s just a fake text book describing a bunch of fictional microscopic organisms. That old chestnut. The idea to write it came out of a lot of things. But my biggest influence with that project was probably the fact that I was a Latin major in college. I loved all the pre-scientific texts we had to read. They were all filled with these instances of really beautiful (usually incorrect) explanations for how the world works. But even if a text was completely wrong in a rational sense, there were still elements of truth to it. The texts I read could manage to capture perfectly how the world seems without being in anyway obligated to how the world actually is. I see value in that, and I wanted to emulate it.
MRQ: Do you have a favorite short story that you didn’t write?
Millions! But here’s a few: “Pet Milk” by Stuart Dybek, “Bigfoot Stole My Wife” by Ron Carlson, “The Adventure of the Bather” by Italo Calvino, “The Guest” by Stanley Elkin, and “Realism” by Charles Yu.
MRQ: Are you going to stay with short stories?
SF: I’ve been writing short stories for so long that they’ve become central to how I look at the world. They help me deal with/understand/suffer through/enjoy things I wouldn’t be able to deal with/understand/suffer through/enjoy otherwise. So even though short stories are very unpopular in a commercial sense, I don’t see any way I could stop devoting the bulk of my creative energy to them.
There’s a lot of pressure for short story writers to write novels. I almost caved under it when I was younger, and spent some time working on novel projects that I wasn’t excited about (that Civil War novel being a notable exception). But the more I thought about it, the less I understood how anyone who loves one form of writing could ever devote their time to another form of writing that leaves them cold. Because if you can be persuaded away from what’s important to you once, why stop there? Why write a novel, which will still only be marginally more marketable? Why not just write copy for Penthouse? Nothing is more commercially viable than pictures of naked people.
MRQ: And you’ve created some hilarious internet-y things to promote the book.
Yes I have! I think an important part of being an artist is making sure your work finds an audience. So I like to spend whatever spare creative energy I have coming up with goofy ways to reach out to people. I want that stuff to be as entertaining as possible, because I don’t think it’s a given that people should check out my book. It’s something I should have to work hard to earn. People’s time is limited. And, you know, they only get to read a certain amount of books before they die. That my book would be one of them is a huge deal … Though, I guess maybe I shouldn’t point out to potential readers that they’re all going to die one day.
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