“The day of the hanging will be a surprise, so it cannot happen at all, so it will be a surprise.” This famous paradox resonates in Bill Gaston’s Juliet Was a Surprise. The collection of short stories shows an insight into the lives of unfamiliar characters through prosaic exteriors with poetic results; this gives the reader opportunity to develop a unique perspective on the humor, unfairness and self-contradiction of life. The book uses characters interacting with two main absurdities, human relationships and human’s desire to understand the world even after consistent failure. The Canadian novelist, poet and playwright also uses language to evoke innermost perspective, using simple lines of typical activities with a resonating twist. Juliet Was a Surprise will leave followers fooled just like the characters in the stories, whether with the situations, the philosophies of life or the description used. This page-turner leaves the reader rethinking the simplest occurrences in life: an oxymoronic surprise.
The paperback deals with the philosophy that humans fail to understand the world, victims to their own conclusions about humanity. In House Clowns, a vacationing man becomes increasingly paranoid, as a young hippie couple seems to also be enjoying their stay in a house he thought he had all to himself. He begins to think this couple is going to kill him. As time progresses, the reality of the situation isn’t revealed, their gestures seem almost psychotic but his analysis schizophrenic. The book never reveals the truth about the situation ending at the climax where the protagonist believes he has been fooled into being murdered on a kayak. Leaving the story on a pondering quote: “He was just twenty feet away, blowing bubbles of laughter and moaning out of his nose, and they were pretending not to see him yet” (30). Juliet Was a Surprise has the notorious style of leaving the readers hanging, unsure of what to believe just like the bewildered people in each story. In Cake’s Kitchen, a pizza boy hangs out with his rebellious pizza-boy peers on a birthday camping trip. He is confused to see that their muttering of insults masks the fact that they have weak personalities and sensitive insides. The story continues to shock the protagonist, as then the boys decide to steal a bird for dinner. When a cop interrogates them but doesn’t notice the bird even as he stares directly at the stolen creature, the boys claim they have magical powers that are able to create hallucination and change the perception of anyone. The SuprerSlice worker wonders if in reality these little boys at heart were just idiots with magical powers that were too foolish to use them properly, again the story never reveals the truth about the situation. The readers are forced to make up their own inexplicable reality. Despite the absurdity of everything, each character in the short stories of Juliet Was A Surprise comes to their own misshapen acceptance of the world they live in, even if they don’t have any answers.
The collection not only follows humans being a part of inexplicable situations – it also spotlights the real ludicrousness of human interaction, relationships, sex and love. The dysfunction of human interaction and relationship goes down to the author’s belief that humans are essentially good. In Trumpadump, clumsy, obese and debatably depressed Bill releases a falling noise from the bathroom and his wife wonders what happened. He replies, “If I slipped it would sound like this,” then the most unpleasantly loud noise of Chantal’s husband falling, hitting his head and coming to an instant death haunts her for the rest of her life. She lives the rest of her life, unsure if it was an intentional suicide or a comedic act gone wrong. In To Mexico, a couple that never expressed their feelings has their relationship summed up in the quote: “Let’s at least get to Mexico” and when they do flee to the south they inevitably silently break up, each passively annoying and being hurt by one another, without desire to do so but rather desire to be free (139). They never solidify anything verbally but they know their relationship has reached an end. In every story, Juliet Was A Surprise had an example of a complex and confusing relationship where interaction uncovered vulnerability; it is absurd to remark that a brief instant can shape profound perception.
Gaston puts his brain-thrashing work out casually, tricking readers not only with truthful demonstration of human reaction but with his choice of words. The stories force readers to reread lines, pondering at what seems to be completely normal. In Petterick, the description of an uncle, “Ray was thin, tanned, focused, a beam of American hotdog,” instantly shows a new realm of character (100). Gaston paints moments, situations and characters that are short, brief and extremely revealing with a few words. He plays with language trickery, “Anyone can tell by their shape and colour that they bulb about in a blind and comic hell. Mushrooms are twerps. Some are dangerous. Good. I could go on, but no more explanation is needed” (72). He says himself in an interview that, “I wouldn’t mind spending five minutes within shouting distance of Charlie Manson, for instance, though I wouldn’t want to spend a week around him. That idea.” His brevity, sharp description and piercing aftertaste manages to toy with his readers the way he does with his characters.
Juliet Was a Surprise shows an appreciative perception of lives of unique characters dealing with situations and relationships that leave readers desperate to remain exposed to a deeper and clearer understanding of our dysfunctional world. Gaston shows the defenselessness in each banal interaction not only through the events the characters will go through, but also with his compelling literary description of seemingly proverbial exteriors. Along the way, readers are fooled just like the protagonist of each journey. The book leaves with one moment to take away and that is that the goodness of people is essential but at times disguised by desperate measures and inevitable confusion. Readers will look at the world with a new depth and complexity; simple and mundane shells when looked at with a new perspective will gift the most obvious surprise.