Forensic Songs

Forensic Songs, the second collection of short stories from Mike McCormack, is a striking work of cross-genre virtuosity, where hints of speculative fiction and fable bring a surprising spark to McCormack's serious literary sensibility. These pieces are clever, touching, timely and at times prescient. Their skeletons are often the same; McCormack presents conflicting, seemingly irreconcilable perspectives. Two people are usually bound together and yet trapped in opposition: aging brothers, estranged spouses, a father and his son, an inmate and his jailer. Some of the stories seem to be near-future dystopias: "The Last Thing We Need" is set in an Ireland where every citizen is legally obligated to write his or her childhood memoir. It's both a clever jab at a too-true cliché about contemporary Irish writing and a sly commentary on ubiquitous government surveillance.

Other pieces are straightforward family dramas, intimate portraits of familiar pain. In "There Are Things We Know," two middle-aged brothers cope with a legacy of heart failure in their family, while in "Of One Mind" a young boy tries to convince his mild-mannered father to give him the beating he's sure will turn him into a serial killer. Although McCormack's language is often casual, these are rigorously formal stories. Each one is so carefully and elegantly orchestrated that reading them feels like watching a masterful game of chess. McCormack comes across as clever and wise without being jaded or clichéd. These stories deliver discomfort and redemption in equal doses. They beg to be discussed and debated for hours, so give a copy to a friend. --Emma Page, bookseller at Island Books in Mercer Island, Wash.

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