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My Chaos Theory

The 12 short stories that comprise My Chaos Theory were written over a span of almost 20 years. Brought together, they explore the male psyche under a haze of obligations toward women: mothers, daughters, stepdaughters, wives deceased or just divorced from their men.

By a slow pan of oddball semi-tragedy, the reader encounters a gun-toting, agoraphobic homemaker, a teenage girl who tries to tell her boyfriend that his best pal with the cool car is queer, and a pregnant woman who faints when her sugar levels drop. A narcoleptic lady passes out if her husband brings up her daughter’s sex life, a woman decides not to breast-feed her deaf, infant son, and Uma Thurman counsels a widower on the proper way to do yoga in the company of a dead body.

The protagonist is the same guy throughout: different age, maybe a different job, but the same indecisiveness and greedy gripe.

It’s the first book of fiction by Steve Watkins, who teaches creative writing at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, and ashtanga yoga on the side. The pieces appeared over the years in literary journals like Quarterly West and the Mississippi Review. At 52, with four daughters of his own, Watkins (whose previous book was a muckraking exposé on corporate racism and Shoney’s restaurants) seems to understand balance, and the stories are honorably readable, their plots never exceeding the appropriateness of the surrounding prose.

The voice here is akin to the kind of voice-over that worked so well in television shows like The Wonder Years or Magnum P.I.

I’d never seen a girl that upset before, and I didn’t exactly know what to do, so I patted her on the back like my mother used to do to me when I was little. I wanted to tell her that her sorry boyfriend didn’t deserve her anyway, but that didn’t seem appropriate even though it was true.

Watkins has gone out of his way to leave mixed messages of grieving and humility before the quotidian procession of time.

Adolescent anxious and middle-aged morose are serviceably, even—in “Ice Age” and “Driver’s Ed”—skillfully rendered. The stories may unfold in Texas or Florida, in India or Africa, but place really doesn’t matter here, or rather: In this book, the summoning of place is an interchangeable affair.

In My Chaos Theory, temperature is the genuine informing device: the coldness of a home, the soft heat of a day, the sticky sloth, or crisp energy between the narrator and the woman he is with. Each story holds a weak but sure gravity that allows for this collection’s ultimate and just arrangement.

I cannot say it would have been a better novel, for it is a book of scenes. This book does have its moments, but they are exactly that: caprice-driven descriptions of a snake farm, the heady sleep of a zen-doused beachcomber. Each piece uses a similar trick that can almost be a kind of repetitive pleasure. A dead elephant, a dead man, a dead girl. A famous actress shows up, and she even does yoga with the narrator and an eyeless corpse. A boy born without a penis relishes the misfortune of another boy who has tied a string around his.

The thing is: I get the feeling that this Watkins is making everything up as he goes along. Of course My Chaos Theory is fiction; it’s all made up as it goes along. But—unless this is a certain kind of self-referential fiction that is not often done well so is often not done—the stories should not feel made up. They should seem to exist with or without the author. When I’m not reading fiction, I can’t say that I adhere to that idea, but having to face this problem while reading a set of otherwise enjoyable faux-fables is not to delight in a kind of meta-work. The style choices Watkins makes may be a sign of sloppiness; they may also be a sign of contempt.

Literary influences are glibly alluded to (Marquez, Mishima, Becket, Conrad, Kafka) but the effect is superfluous, and may serve only to remind the careful reader that what Watkins is doing is engaging in “literary fiction”—not a gossipy slab of true crime, not a pamphlet-like paperback about whomever you might or might not meet in heaven—but that serious work that means time is well spent.

The 12 stories do not concern themselves with the problems of language for language’s sake; these are stories that do not need to be haphazardly linked to get their unities across. The book is speckled with passages that would do better linked in cinematic memory or even a kind of poetry. Going story to story, a reader may start to accept that the book is good, but nevertheless ill-conceived. So maybe the great books are supposed to teach you how to read them. Encountering My Chaos Theory, I am tempted to accept that this might be the case with even the not-so-great books.

Roberto Ontiveros is a freelance writer living in New Braunfels.