OPINION: Tod Goldberg’s book of strange men: ‘Simplify’

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Zasha Hayes

Illustration

Dakota Preslar, Reporter

“Simplify” is the name of Tod Goldberg’s collection of short tales viewing tragically, hilariously ill-equipped men faced with surreal situations and their inner selves. It is also the title of the second short story in this book, which sets the standard of Goldberg’s simple voice that excels in every single story presented. Religion, Marine brothers, fathers, suicide, trauma, humor, math and lists feature prominently in the stories collected in “Simplify.”

Goldberg is not a writer limited to genre. I would even say his stories could be considered something I coin “American Horror,” be it in the struggle against the soulless power of money or the dark fallout of the war in Vietnam. Despite the name of the collection of short stories, Goldberg’s work is nothing if it is not deep and looping. But here I must add another qualification: It is in the paradoxical duality inherent to each story between heavy and light, simple and complex, tragic and hilarious, that makes “Simplify” such a relatable collection of work.

Good and evil are encountered on a regular basis in “Simplify.” Characters are faced with the choice between good or bad, and although they usually choose bad, they do so in a way that we couldn’t blame them for. We would come to the same decision the same way.

The characters who do choose to do good do so in ways seldom noticed by fiction. The married protagonists of “The Jesus of Cathedral City,” the first story of the book, fear the miracle-giving power Jesus Christ himself has bestowed upon their hands. Meeting the Son of God brings unexpected consequences, such as growing an extra row of teeth or enormous breasts. Vaguely reminiscent of the time Jesus encountered the devil in the wilderness, they even win the lottery and resist cashing in.

You read that, and your initial reaction is to ridicule them for spurning a fortune, but then you stop and think about it. What would actually happen if you came into a sea of cash and unleashed it upon the world? What would that feel like? You don’t have to pin down what it would feel like, but what asking the question would feel like.

That is the conceit pulling ropes and holding up mirrors behind Goldberg’s stories: the nature of adjacency. We don’t follow killers in Goldberg’s stories, but their brothers. We don’t behold the modern-day Adam and Eve, but the man and woman who weren’t the right fit for the Lord’s job. Goldberg puts one odd person in his stories — he puts us all in his stories. Every protagonist in the collection is named, but they’re all so faceless and shifting that they could be anyone at all.

“Compulsion tells me to assign my wife and child a letter, something solitary and distinct that I could base a whole new alphabet on. But I resist. I simplify. I solve for X.”

What could be simple about this handful of sentences that close the titular story? Ray, the protagonist of “Simplify,” spent his youth battling the irresistible power of his mental illness. His antics ranged from the mostly harmless to the disturbing. As a way to self-soothe, Ray created a personal alphabet of symbols only he could understand. He was also party to a murder of a classmate when he was in third grade. So a Tod Goldberg story goes. What seems a simple ending to a story belies the complexity and original invention Goldberg injects into his craft.

Ray could be considered the Adam of this collection of 12 stories. He errs and recognizes and acts, but nothing has really changed by the end of his story. We follow him as he makes deliberate changes to his character and his life, so this final hammer blow that seals his ability to resist is not much of a surprise. He still thinks this is all a mathematical equation. Wife plus child equals good, normal life. X still lingers on the fringe of the equation like it has his whole life. And that’s OK. It’s hard to judge the characters in “Simplify.”

The stories “Simplify” contains are echoes of a life that could easily be any of our own. Goldberg’s well, simple style and humble wit sketches the world we know, and his remarkable emotional depth colors it just the right odd shade to make us feel something isn’t quite right here.

We’ve all felt that way, in our own lives. We’ve all been in Goldberg’s characters’ shoes: we’ve felt blindsided and numbed by life; we’ve acted crazy without knowing it, thinking we’re doing the best we can; and we’ve all accepted some pretty strange things that bend the corners of our otherwise normal, taxing lives.