Matthew Battles’s 11 “tales,” as they are called on the title page of “The Sovereignties of Invention,” cover the range of literary parable and fantasy. Several echo the tone — observant, factual, elegant — of our greatest living practitioner of this genre, Steven Millhauser. For instance, here is the opening of “The Dogs in the Trees”:
“The first sightings of dogs in trees were reported not long after the Fall equinox. Early rumor came in the form of videos shot at arms’ length on cell phones and hastily uploaded — grainy, shaky, shot with cock-angled intensity, the palsied depth of field swimming as it sought purchase amidst limbs and leaves.”
As the narrative develops, more and more dogs are sighted, quietly hunched among the branches. Tethered pets soon begin to bark and howl at night, maddened with desire to be aloft. Oddly enough, nobody makes any serious effort to lower the dogs back to earth. And eventually the animals begin . . .
Well, there’s no point in spoiling the story. But one can safely say that it remains mysterious and its final meaning elusive. Indeed, while all of Battles’s tales neatly hook the reader, he seems better at creating symbolic or allegorical situations than resolving them. I frequently finished a story by murmuring, “Huh?” or with the feeling that it was just a bit too precious and derivative, overwrought in both senses of the word.
For example, it’s hard not to read the title story, “The Sovereignties of Invention” without thinking of Borges’s classic examinations of sensory overload, “The Aleph” and “Funes the Memorious.” In Battles’s science-fictional narrative, a device records every detail, noticed and unnoticed, of its protagonist’s short run through a park and then allows him to reexperience “the immense interbricolated labyrinths of sensation harvested from that single late-fall jog.” In effect, the unfortunate man discovers a world in a grain of sand, eternity in an hour. Still another story, “The Manuscript of Belz,” uses the background of contemporary religious war to create a homage to “Pierre Menard, Author of the ‘Quixote,’ ” Borges’s little classic in which a French writer re-creates, word for word, the text of Cervantes’s “Don Quixote” and by so doing transforms it into a post-modernist masterpiece.
Best known as the author of “Library: An Unquiet History,” Battles is currently a program fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. On the one hand, he’s obviously bookish, his work readily calling to mind not just the fables of Millhauser and Borges but also the prose-poems of W.S. Merwin’s “The Miner’s Pale Children,” the imaginative miniatures of Helen Phillips’s recently published “And Yet They Were Happy,” various forms of literary experiment and even old episodes of “The Twilight Zone.” Yet at the same time, Battles can set a story at a computer conference that features an expert on “crowdsourcing distributed libraries of emotional solidarity.” “The Gnomon,” appropriately enough, then neatly builds to a terrifying representation of “emotional solidarity.”
While he can write simple and evocative sentences, Battles pushes hard for hipness (“quoz”) and even harder for an Updikean specificity that sometimes gives the impression of a young man trying too hard: “Close by the fieldstone break, a small sailboat lay hauled out on a hump of long grass, its sail and rigging furled and wound like some forgotten aegis.” All is well until that final word, which sounds odd and pretentious. What’s more, an “aegis” isn’t some kind of banner or flag, it’s a shield.
That sentence appears in “Camera Lucida,” in which a family discovers that an old Polaroid camera produces photographs of scenes from elsewhere or elsewhen. This is an old trope in fantasy and sf, but here Battles uses it to examine the marital tensions between the narrator’s parents. In “I After the Cloudy Doubly Beautifully,” he ingeniously, if wearyingly, mixes Walter Benjamin’s reflections on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” with the aesthetics of machine translation. In “Time Capsules,” the narrator acquires a bag of pills that can reverse the temporal flow: Pop a capsule and you go back one minute in time. Unfortunately, the pills are addictive.
“The Sovereignties of Invention” is published as “a Red Lemonade book, available in all reasonably possible formats — in limited artisanal editions, in a trade paperback edition, and in all current digital editions, as well as online at the Red Lemonade publishing community at http://redlemona.de.” Such is multiplatform book production in the early 21st century. Nonetheless, Red Lemonade, like so many other publishers these days, needs to hire some good proofreaders. “The Sovereignties of Invention” is occasionally marred by the kind of unnecessary grammatical errors and phrase duplications generated by overreliance on computers: “a grove of trees that following a low narrow bourne” (instead of “that followed”); “tapping at keys arrayed on neatly on a long tablet.”
While Matthew Battles isn’t wholly successful throughout “The Sovereignties of Invention,” let me emphasize that his “tales” are still greatly entertaining. After all, the wonder story is — as it has always been — the most perennially appealing of all the forms of fiction.
Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Post at wapo.st/reading-room.
THE SOVEREIGNTIES OF INVENTION
By Matthew Battles
Red Lemonade. 109 pp. $14.95