Taking a whiff of 'This New & Poisonous Air'
As the assistant director of Creative Nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago, Adam McOmber teaches mythology as well as creative nonfiction, and serves as the associate editor of the literary magazine Hotel Amerika. His work has been published in Conjunctions, ThirdCoast, StoryQuarterly and Arts & Letters. His first book is a short story collection, This New & Poisonous Air; his first novel will appear next year.
The opening short story in This New & Poisonous Air portrays a gifted dancer and a diabolically creative engineer living in early seventeenth-century Italy. Together the men produce a ballet with an elaborate set. It’s an uncanny replica of the city of Florence, which many felt created “a threatening sense of fantasy.” The same can be said for McOmber’s intricate and provocative stories about forbidden love, and how artifice and make-believe provide sanctuary for the outcast and the heartbroken.
The dancer and the engineer––who, in mourning for their doomed affair, builds a vast artificial garden featuring alarming robots––are loosely based on historic figures. In the story There Are No Bodies Such as This, McOmber fictionalizes, and sensitively humanizes, Madame Tussaud of waxworks fame. A woman of determination, intellect, and dark vision, she finds self-expression and affirmation in creating eerily lifelike wax creations.
In the tender yet hard-hitting title story, a young girl is left alone and starving in her village after the bubonic plague kills her mother and her father disappears. The girl bravely agrees to accompany a traveling stranger, who assures her that he’ll do her no harm. After several confounding and frightening nights in places fancy and foul, she discerns the nature of his intimate trade in a poisoned world, and in a curious reversal, becomes his protector.
McOmber layers so many social and psychological nuances into his curiously timeless and powerfully seductive myths, fairy tales, and fables, they shimmer and bristle in the mind. Take A Man of History, for instance, in which pragmatism meets enchantment as an aged man of some means and much resignation channels his taboo feelings for men into devotion to an old book, the alleged diary of a knight errant known as Sir Stephen of Sorrows. In A Memory of His Rising, the sons of two rival academics fall in love, until one inexplicably acquires the ability to fly with tragic results.
In Gardens of the Moon, the fantasies of Jules Verne play in harsh counterpoint to an old, ornery, steam-powered McCormick threshing machine manned by a young farmer who is longing for his lost closeness to a boyhood friend. He is in a marriage of convenience with a smart gal from Chicago. She’s a playwright’s daughter, who tells him that she married him for the same reason he married her, because she understands that much of life is theater. McOmber complicates his reigning metaphor in the taut and creepy story, Fall, Orpheum, in which a movie theater, and the trance movies induce, turn bizarrely malevolent.
The tyranny of prejudice and fear, false lives staged to camouflage love deemed evil or profane, the escape routes engineered by the imagination in crisis––all intrigue and inspire Adam McOmber. This New & Poisonous Air is laced with sorrow and mystery, beauty and compassion, insight and protest. This New & Poisonous Air is exquisitely crafted, daringly inventive and keenly haunting.
Music Button: Radio Citizen, "Mondlicht", from the album Berlin Serengeti, (Ubiquity)