by Nick Arvin
Publisher: Penguin USA
Pub. Date: February 2003
Nick Arvin comes from a background most people probably wouldn't expect. A student of engineering and ex-employee of The Ford Motor Company, Arvin stands defiantly against the idea that engineers know nothing about human emotion. "In The Electric Eden" is full of just that, and is a vibrant read that will grab your attention over and over again.
Don't let the utopian title or the flashy neon carnival cover fool you. The short stories contained within are not the stuff of merry-go-rounds or cotton candy. Be prepared more for the rickety old wooden roller coaster, the grungy man with a cigar in his mouth operating the ride and collecting your ticket. Or perhaps even a glimpse behind the curtains to see the gears at work and the accidents that happen despite the show going on.
The opening work of Arvin's collection revolves around Topsy, a carnival elephant (This seems to be actually based on true events, as a friend offered to show me the video that is referred to in the piece). The story is told through the grandson of the main character and relates an experience that shaped his grandfather's life. The title, also the title of the book, becomes chillingly appropriate as the story unfolds, setting the pace for the rest of the book as Arvin takes us deep into what it means to be human.
Occasionally we are given tales that rise out of the murk to show us the light. Stories such as "The Prototype," about old love lost and perhaps found again during a midnight four wheel drive in a stolen car. "Telescope;" a very curious experimental piece, reveals the thoughts of a mother and the chain reaction that occurs when she discovers her son's old telescope also shows us a lighter side and a sense of hope. However, even in these works, the stormy nature of Arvin's writing is still pervasive.
Arvin manages to mix his engineering past in for what is sometimes a whimsical twist, and other times he a grim look on the mechanical. "Take Your Child To Work" is one such piece in which a technical voice with precarious circumstance at the workplace is used to shed light on the frailty of maturity. "Aeronautics" and "What They Teach You in Engineering School," both stories of human intentions gone wrong, are the other side of the coin..
Nick Arvin may have a knack for writing about the human, but it is defiantly the dark side that is explored in "In The Electric Eden." This is by no means a collection that will make you appreciate the spring flowers as you read it, but it is one that, if you have the mind for it, will force reflection upon life and the details buried therein.