A Joyride Into Complicated Territory

A New Short Story Collection by Southern New Hampshire University's Adam Wilson Combines Comedy and Angst in Challenging Some of our Last Taboos


MANCHESTER, N.H., Aug. 26, 2014 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- The history of literature is full of writers who burst through the social mores of the their day—authors such as D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, James Joyce, and William S. Burroughs. In the wake of those iconoclasts, and in these free-wheeling times, are there any more boundaries to cross?

There are, says The New York Times—at least in reference to a stunning new short story collection, "What's Important Is Feeling" (Harper Perennial) by Adam Wilson. "Time and again," said the Times, "Wilson tests boundaries and invites the reader to stop, thinking a story has crossed a line, gone too far into promiscuity, indiscretion, taboo."

But unlike Burroughs, say, who set out to shock his readers, Wilson is that gentle sort of iconoclast who writes edgy material almost in spite of himself. A visiting writer this fall in Southern New Hampshire University's MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction program, Wilson eschews the whole idea of inviting his readers to stop.

"I'm actually not looking to push boundaries, to put readers off, but I do want to create a sense of discomfort," Wilson said. "Once you have that, you also have an engaged and active reader. And in this way, literature is different from other art forms. It's just you and the reader. There's an intimacy, a sense of privacy, that encourages readers to confront their own received ideas and then move beyond them, perhaps go places they wouldn't otherwise have gone."

One such place, for example—in the story "Milligrams"—is defined by two lovers and what they do with a live lobster. "Well, that's a perverse reimagining of that cute and romantic lobster scene in the film 'Annie Hall,'" Wilson said. "But usually I don't know where my ideas come from." He added, laughing, "I'm not sure I want to know."

Born and raised in Newton, Massachusetts, and currently a resident of Brooklyn, Wilson is also the author of the novel "Flatscreen" (Harper Perennial, 2012). This was a National Jewish Book Award Finalist, an Indie Next Pick, and an Amazon Book of the Month.

He has published stories, essays, and journalism in a wealth of prestigious venues. This story collection's title piece was included in the 2012 "Best American Short Stories," and that same year Wilson received The Paris Review's Terry Southern Prize, which awards "wit, panache, and sprezzatura in work published by The Paris Review."

Wit, panache, and sprezzatura are characteristic of all Wilson stories, and in their rich comedy they also recall such iconoclasts as, yes, Terry Southern, along with Joseph Heller, and—in his funnier moments—Philip Roth.

"My characters are often people who see themselves in an amoral universe, and who struggle with feelings of existential despair," Wilson said. "They're trying to achieve some sort of human connection, though the way they go about this might be inappropriate, or frowned upon, or poorly thought out."

The comedy bubbles up naturally, but this in no way compromises the heft of an Adam Wilson story. Instead it's the essence of Wilson's narrative art. "This is the whole challenge to me," he said. "First, to create this comic surface, and then at some point to pull away the mask of laughter to reveal the depth and breadth of the human condition."

Wilson is a fan of the bleak and knotty novels of Samuel Beckett, which are all about the human condition, but there is little in Wilson's fiction of Beckett's chilly nihilism. Instead "What's Important Is Feeling" is warmed by the affection the author feels for his troubled, lonely, boundary-busting characters.

"Despite its glum themes, this book is a joyride," said The New York Times. "The buoyant comedy and insight of Wilson's prose carries these stories farther and farther past taboo, into sensitive and complicated territory."

"Adam understands that comedy is often best when it happens by accident," said Benjamin Nugent, novelist and essayist and Director of SNHU's MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. "His work manages to be honest and strange at the same time. With writing like that, comedy is a natural byproduct."

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