It is difficult, in my mind, to overstate just how much I love Adam Johnson’s recent collection of stories, Fortune Smiles. It is easily the best collection of stories I’ve read in my lifetime, and arguably the most unforgettable reading experience I had in 2016. As such, it was difficult for me to not splurge and buy everything Johnson had ever published (I since have) simply because writing something as great as Fortune Smiles is no accident. Writers cannot possibly luck into creating such an experience. Despite this, however, I still was not quite ready to read his novels. It seems rare that a writer is both great at writing in short form and in long form, and there is something incandescent and untouchable about a great short story. The idea of having Fortune Smiles repeated in even a small manner was too much too ignore.
So here we are with Johnson’s first collection of stories, Emporium. Which undoubtedly flies below the steady greatness of Fortune Smiles, but nonetheless shows Johnson to have had so much promise that the stories themselves become secondary to the sheer wonder of the thought of this young writer one day putting it all together and writing something that is as great as the highs within Emporium throughout a single piece, rather than scattered among a few stories. Johnson has such a gift for readable, yet unique prose that one forgets that s/he is reading something that is held in high academic esteem. It is as if Hemingway was mixed with John Kennedy Toole and Kurt Vonnegut. Johnson finds a way to convey, at times, harsh realities inside wacky three dimensional characters packed within sci-fi-like eras of the world that, despite their seeming offhandedness, resonate deeply with a reader.
Readers of Fortune Smiles will no doubt enjoy the collection for the chance to see how far Johnson has come in his ability to tell a story, yet they will also notice how often Emporium seems to be the same thing that Johnson eventually perfected. All the stories are after the same thing, an existential undeniably human experience of the world and what it is like to exist within it. Yet Emporium seems to have a reoccurring habit of not necessarily knowing how to get itself out of what it has gotten into. With the exception of “The Canadanaut” each story seems to contain the rise of what is going to become a story, but never bothers to finish. They do not necessarily feel incomplete, it is instead that they feel like they never had a true plot to begin with. Johnson is talented at creating characters, and these are character driven and focused stories, but they end up missing any sense of closure. It is impossible to not become invested in these characters, but a reader will end up asking themselves what the point of it was.
The exception to this, as mentioned above, is the eighth story in the collection (and likely not by coincidence, the longest story in the collection), “The Canadanaut,” which is a story set in the 60s of a space race between Canada and Russia to try to put a man in space and get him home. A reoccurring theme in Emporium is loneliness, but “The Canadanaut” reaches new heights on the topic whereas the rest of the stories never seem to quite get where I think they are striving for (a possible exception to this being the first story, “Teen Sniper”). What is more lonely than being on a one-man shuttle into space, a likely suicide mission? The themes are heavy here, but not heavy-handed: the impossibility of true communication, the coldness of math and science bereft of humanity, and the longing for things out of our grasp and dreams long gone. While perhaps not worth the price of the book itself, “The Canadanaut” is a must-read.
Emporium is a collection of wondrous prose that can make a reader forget that stories are about a bit more than words on a page. Johnson, even from an early age, clearly possessed a devastating ability to capture human experience in an efficient and meaningful way without sacrificing any clarity. Emporium, more than anything, just warns of an incredible voice with a bright future ahead.
Recommended to: Adam Johnson completionists. This excludes “The Canadanaut,” which everyone needs to find a pdf of very quickly.
Avoid as if it is taking a sixteen seed to the Final Four: Please do not begin here with Johnson. Grab Fortune Smiles if you are interested in this fantastic writer.