Friday, June 13, 2014

Best foot forward and that is about it

kw: book reviews, short stories, fiction, story reviews, anthologies

It is a chemist's daydream, to determine exactly the composition of a major trade-secret product such as Coca-Cola. For some, the daydream extends to extorting large sums from the company in return for keeping the secret. Thus it was inevitable that a chemist, one from Stanford at that, should write a story on this theme, as we find in the title story of How I Beat Coca-Cola and Other Tales of One-Upmanship by Carl Djerassi.

The story's protagonist has determined a precise mixture of 227 ingredients that exactly mimics Classic Coke. A humorous twist or two later, he and his lawyer-wife have settled with the company for a lifetime $1million income plus 24 times that to be delivered yearly to charities of their choice. It's a great read, an enjoyable "if only" sort of story.

The other 11 stories play on the theme of one-upmanship, and I confess I was, I suppose, one-upped by nearly all, one after another. The author intended each ending to be an obvious turn against a character who had it coming (with one exception). The trouble is, it is seldom evident which character is meant, and the ending is thus quite ambiguous, at least to me. By the tenth story, "The Futurist", I had figured out that one must gather clues as if the writer were Agatha Christie. Even then the ending was deflating. I could tell which character "won" the contest, but it was not clear that the other knew he had lost. There is such a thing as too much indirection.

The last story, "The Toyota Cantos", surpasses in erudition every other short story I've read. A scholar who seems to have memorized all of Dante's Divine Comedy prepares a present for his wife, who, he has found, knows it quite as well as he. Though he hadn't noticed earlier on. The ending is more satisfying, being a win-win.

Dr. Djerassi writes skillfully, and I suppose he'll think himself very clever indeed that his thought processes usually left me baffled.

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