Insane-O-Tron is a collection of six compulsively imaginative stories by Nick Alverson. We encounter sentient hair, a candy wizard and even visit Ponyland. But Alverson writes best when he limits himself to one absurdity per piece.
The first story, The Family Family, was my least favourite. A surrealist screenwriter is hired to rejuvenate a flagging family drama, with distressingly successful results. I found the protagonist too amoral to be sympathetic and not funny enough to be likeable. The whole scenario had a whiff of wish fulfillment about it.
Alverson hits his stride in the story Insane-O-Tron, about a haircut so good that it comes to life and takes its owner on a treasure hunt under a restaurant run by pirate scientists, and into prehistory itself. Maybe this story would’ve made more sense as a cartoon or video game, but Alverson does a great job of making it work in prose. Again I didn’t really care about the characters, but the situation was so entertaining that it didn’t bother me.
Mallard Quackenbush is where things really get good. An engineer is uncomfortable about his sixteen-year-old daughter dating the titular character, who is a duck. We get a peek into his childhood to explain why that it is, and by the standards of this book the explanation is downright plausible. This is story that makes me think that Alverson writes better when there’s only one ridiculous thing going on – I guess that makes it easier to suspend disbelief.
Terry, the tale of the bond between a young boy and his sentient Halloween pumpkin, is the best in the collection. We’ve got pathos, magical realism and a candy wizard! Best of all, I really connected to the characters. Terry’s despair at being ignored by his owner in favour of a suitcase is palpable, and anyone with a heart will sympathise with a bullied kid.
I enjoyed The Perfect Day, was set in a world like the one depicted in A Bug’s Life. Alverson should revisit this setting, I want to read a book about a civilization of anthropomorphic insects. The story’s too short to describe without spoiling things, but I will say that it is a snorter.
Brave Pony confused me. Set in Pony Land, it’s about a clumsy pony who has to fight a dragon. It was funny, it was well written, but I didn’t see the point of it. My best guess is that it was parodying My Little Pony.
Alverson is a talented writer with an eye for unusual metaphors and situations. If this is the stuff he comes up with in his first book, than he may be an author to watch.
I got this ARC from NetGalley. You can get a copy of the book from Amazon.