'The Grinders' by Adam CallawaySetting is king in ‘Walls of Paper, Soft as Skin,’ and Ars Lacuna, Callaway’s fictional city and muse, is an absolute wonder, even in the brief time we get to spend with it in this (very) short story. A haunting, weird city, Ars Lacuna breathes originality and creativity, and in very few words Callaway is able to conjure up another world that just begs to be explored. There are several quotable passages within the thousand words of the story, but this was possibly my favourite:

“Tomai. Did you hear Tomai? An entire debarking team swam into the termite’s jaws. On purpose Tomai!” Kork said pulling at Tomai’s frayed shirt. Kork stood waist high on his tiptoes.

“I can believe it,” Tomai said. He looked for a pine or birch pole.

“Really Tomai? I can’t. Debarkers have sickle bone arms. They can swim better than any trout Tomai! Who’d want to kill themselves with features like that Tomai?” Kork made wild hand gestures.

“I can believe it.”

“Even if they decided, ‘Okay, let’s do this girls,’ they could have come up with a better way. The autoblades would have made short work of them. The paper sizers down the way too. But being hacked up and digested by a bug the size of a city block though! Really Tomai? Can you believe it Tomai?”

Tomai spotted a curved pine pole under a stack of oak. He grabbed it.

“I can believe it.”

Kork squinted. “I’m not talking to you anymore today.”

Tomai dragged his pole through the inside flap. Into Parchment Run. Where the river exchanged a canopy of sky for corrugated tin. Dozens of pole workers were straightening sawn, debarked logs to enter the jaws of the bug. He took an open spot.

Callaway’s creation is unlike anything I’ve run across before, a city built on paper and books, words and whims; a loveletter to literature. But, like Tomai, I can believe it.

Within this wonderful setting is only the barest hint of a plot or forward narrative; instead, Callaway lulls the reader in with his quiet, abrupt prose and paints a stark picture for them. Only at the very last does Callaway call back to the opening of the story and, in a lovely bit of world- and character-building, twists things around in a way that encourages the reader to go back and re-read the tale from a new perspective, making its brevity not a weakness but a strength. An enchanting introduction to Callaway’s fiction and more than enough to convince me to explore his other work set in Ars Lacuna.

  • Doug M. July 25, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    Issue #73 is sitting on my Kindle, but I’ve not got around to it yet. I’ll have to make a point to.

  • Shaun Duke July 26, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    I strongly suggest buying the ebook of the Ars Lacuna novella nobody would publish. If you liked this story, you’ll love that one. It’s bloody brilliant. It’s really sad he couldn’t get any of the majors to take it, because he deserves an award not for it.

  • aidan July 27, 2011 at 10:16 am

    @Shaun — Already purchased. Glad to know it holds up to this short story.