The Present Thickness of the Smog
by Charles Rafferty
Woodhall Press, 2021
reviewed by Seana Graham
Having read a couple of Charles Rafferty’s story collections now, I may have thought I knew what to expect going into this full length novel. And in fact, the format was immediately familiar. The short chapters looked very much like his stories (and some of them have been published separately as stories) and he uses the same arresting technique of titling them with some phrase from within the story or chapter itself. Sometimes, these sound straightforward enough: “Fire and Honey,” “ Little Pieces of Glass.” But often they suggest a whole story in themselves, not necessarily related to the one they are embedded in: “Her Father’s Steady Chewing Confirmed Her Mother’s Logic,” for example, or “The Unmistakable Smirk of Someone Who Had Been Gathering Toads.” (And, in fact, I’ve titled this review with a phrase from within Moscodelphia itself. But I’ll leave it to you to find out where.)
But being used to a certain kind of content in Rafferty’s stories, which often deal with intimate contemporary relationships, I was quite surprised at the opening of this tale:
Magda Puzanov was fifteen when she found the angel huddled in a corner of bloody straw. It looked like a pile of trash someone had been too lazy to sweep away, but when Magda reached for it with a dung rake, she noticed the stump where the left wing had been. She looked up then and saw the hole in the barn roof.
Magda then ran to tell her father what she had discovered, and he followed her back with his shotgun.
This not a novel about hunting down angels, though, and this turns out to be a singular event, but one remembered at other points in the book for being one of the few times that the Puzanov family does not go hungry, as it turns out angel meat must be eaten quickly. This is a story about a dystopian world, but it also seems to be very much planet Earth, possibly in the not too distant future. For the Puzanovs and their fellow farmers, things seem to have regressed to a much more primitive state, which is also a state of scarcity. Yet there are still planes and trains and the big city called Moscodelphia on the horizon, which can be glimpsed from the countryside, though mostly because of the smog that surrounds it.
Despite that, Magda is drawn to this distant city even before her lover Anton runs away to it. As an albino, Anton is at risk of losing body parts, since people tend to want them for lucky charms, especially when things seem to be going particularly badly. Although Magda has adapted herself resourcefully to her lot and life on the farm, she imagines she will find different possibilities in the big city. She doesn’t realize yet that different possibilities don’t always mean better ones.
The countryfolk of the story are superstitious, if that word can be used in a nonpejorative way. Strange things do happen here and the remedies may seem a bit drastic. But strange things also happen in Moscodelphia (think toads), though there people seem to go out of their way to ignore them.
The human society in both places is fairly brutal and there is a feeling throughout of some prior catastrophe that has left things in this state. The events that have caused it are only vaguely alluded to, but this is in part because the people themselves have no real consciousness of what has happened. Between the scarcity of reading material and the deliberate lies of the government, they are really more like beasts of burden than human beings in some ways. They lack real knowledge of why they find themselves in this situation, though there are some scraps and remnants of the past that they find and puzzle over. Magda, for instance, is sure the world is flat and it’s going to take a lot of evidence to convince her otherwise.
Although this is in many ways a dark tale, both Magda and Anton shed a kind of light and hope within the story. And Rafferty, who is also a poet, beautifully describes this world despite all its privations, often with unexpected turns of phrase and striking imagery.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She has also reviewed for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. The recent anthology, Annihilation Radiation from Storgy Press, includes one of her stories. Santa Cruz Noir, a title from Akashic Press, features a story of hers about the city in which she currently resides.