The Great Frustration

Seth Fried
Soft Skull Press

Seth Fried’s debut collection, The Great Frustration, is almost, almost, too much of a good thing. In a blurb on the back of the book, Hannah Tinti says that Fried is “channeling Saunders by way of Barthelme and Kafka,” which is pretty much the truth, and which means this book is basically a mix tape to my nineteen-year-old self. There is the hilarity (both in terms of humor and insanity) of Saunders, the fully churning structural and textual imagination of Barthelme, and the overwhelming look at systems and bureaucracy of Kafka, all wrapped into one easy-to-assemble package.

It’s basically a food processor of funny, intelligent stories.

Fried has two main gifts that are his own: deadpan and perfectly timed humor, and an awe-inspiring way in which he can condense complicated issues into stories that are genuinely entertaining, i.e. “page-turners.” Take, for example, the beginning of one of the funniest stories in the collection, “Those of Us in Plaid”:

Our job was simple: get the monkey in the capsule. Our superiors made sure to point out that it was one of the easiest and therefore least important tasks, a task that anyone could do, just as they always pointed out that our plaid coveralls were not as sharp-looking as their coveralls. But we felt that every step of the sequence was equally important, that, coveralls aside, everyone involved shared an integral role in the project’s success. After all, if we didn’t get the monkey in the capsule, then the capsule couldn’t be sent to the first prep station. If the capsule never made it to the first prep station, then it’d never get to the Transparent Operator, who would end up sitting there in his hydraulic lift, empty-handed, chewing on his moustache and writing swear words on his clipboard. If the capsule never made it to transport, it’d never get to the Project Elects in their snazzy red coveralls, whose job it was to slap the thermal readers on the capsule and signal the helicopter to come round and pick the damn thing up. Which would mean the pilot would just have to keep circling, wasting gas. He’d probably end up crashing before he realized he’d run out of time to fly the capsule over the volcano and drop it in. And if the capsule never made it up with the helicopter and down into the volcano, then the Advanced Project Elects, in their stunning blue coveralls with silver piping and decals in exquisite copper brown, wouldn’t have any occasion to flip the detonator on the incendiary bomb planted along the throat of the volcano. The whole experiment would be ruined.

And in fact, that’s exactly what did happen. We never got that monkey in there.

Fried’s imagination condenses the major plagues of contemporary life into tight, wicked, illuminative fables. They are about conformity, government, duty, loyalty (“Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre”); perversity and sexuality (“Life in the Harem”); segregation and ghettofication (“The Siege”); free thought and the manipulation of language (“The Scribe’s Lament”); and so on. When I used the cliché “too much of a good thing,” that’s almost actually exactly the case, in that I ended up wondering what trick Fried would pull next, what perfectly phrased and analogized satire would next be offered. But the book ends with its most unexpected achievement: “Animacula,” a miniature encyclopedia of imagined creatures which each distill some emotion, some particular hard-to-describe feeling. It achieves the most basic requirement of any good piece of art, which is, simply, that it puts life into a new, strange, recognizable, wholly clear-sighted perspective.


Michael Goroff is a contributing editor and small press fiction staff reviewer for Barn Owl Review. He lives with his cat in Akron, Ohio, where he is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction through the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts program.

Also by Michael Goroff: 

Review of Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting

Review of Volt by Alan Heathcock

Review of Look! Look! Feathers by Mike Young

Review of Us by Michael Kimball

Review of How They Were Found by Matt Bell