Aliens of Affection is the perfect title for Padgett Powell’s most recent collection of short stories because it is at once alienating and endearing. Powell’s stories precisely reflect his characters’ mental stations and instability, underlining the extremes people go to for sanity. Despite the delirium most of his characters are in, I sympathized with Mrs. Hollingsworth, Wayne, and company. I even laughed out loud with (at) them. How did Powell get me to react in these multiple ways at once?
Just a few details, things easily noted in other writers’ fiction and painfully sought after in my own.
One: he uses the right word nearly every time, words like “blitzkrieg of the yard” for mowing (“Trick or Treat”).
Two: Aliens of Affection is in many ways a commentary on how our culture can drive a man or woman insane, while readily handing them their independence (the reverse has been true until this century). Powell reinforces this theme when he licenses himself with the right to create or take words from the modern culture. He uses descriptions like, “white thighs of his wife… like Boy-ardee noodles” and “dirty hand of this Cloroxed pinkish devil.”
Three: his text shadows his characters’ psyches, a technique differentiating slightly from stream-of-consciousness. The grammatical structures even break down at times, faithfully articulating the defective mental states of his main characters. In short, his lingual proficiency makes me understand why critics like to describe writers like Powell as “masters.”
My only problem was one intrinsic to Powell’s form. At times I longed for simplicity and a straight forward text. His stories are so weighted with bizarre grammatical structures, original words or phrases, and unbalanced sentences reflecting the constitution of an unbalanced world that the text became monotonous at times. “All Along the Watchtower” began to rant after only a few pages and was too long (over one hundred pages). Reading it I thought, This story, this writing style, is so complex and insane that I’m becoming mildly confused and bored. Is it possible to write a text that reflects the mentalities of irritating characters without irritating the reader? Is it possible to have your text mirror the natures of alienating or alienated people without alienating the reader?
As a final comment, Alien‘s inverted humor is terrific. I was truly tempted to put on my answering machine:
Hello, you’ve reached trouble. If you make sense, I won’t call you back. If it makes sense to call you back, I won’t. If this makes sense to you, you have the right number. I do not listen to the messages on this machine. As near as I can tell these machines make no sense. You’ve called me, uninvited, I am not interested in you or your business; if you are interested in mine, here, take this, my best shot: My floors are clean. And they will remain so. (“Dump”)