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Tony Mancus on Michael Sheehan

Michael Sheehan’s Proposals for the Recovery of the Apparently Drowned (Short Stories – Colony Collapse Press, 2012)


In the opening story of Michael Sheehan’s stellar first collection of short stories, Proposals for the Recovery of the Apparently Drowned (Colony Collapse Press, 2012), we are able to see the imprint of David Foster Wallace. It’s a refracted imprint, though – as the device that’s used throughout Infinite Jest here is presented in an inverse manner. “Jean Takes a Moment to Respond” relies upon extensive footnoting that works to not only examine the technical aspects of the recording that is being explored as it’s being presented to us, but it also works to really establish the voice of the narrator as he presents it. This sets the context for his return visit to the amateurish and decaying recording he’s viewing and it draws us through the lens of the camera into the narrator’s motivations and assumptions. The main text of the story acts as reportage – with the line demarking the footnotes as a literal subtext, where the reader gets to see the narrator even though the recording device is constantly pointed away from him.

The story is being told from some indeterminate distance through the lens of the VHS recording of this day as it’s being narrated, or at least spoken back to, by the man who had recorded it. Not to hook too heavily into the plot, but on the day being presented the narrator and his then wife are having a birthday party for their young daughter and while this party happens a murder takes place across the street. The murderer has even been captured in the grainy footage. Here is where Sheehan brings us in – with the knowledge that while innocuous and life-fulfilling things are taking place often right in front of our faces, just outside that frame there are all manner of horrible events occurring in the world. Unimaginable and distorted things. He gives us the recorded events from this day and the narrator’s reactions to them interspersed with what has occurred to his life since the events have been put to tape – much of which has decayed with time, in a way mirroring the deterioration of magnetic tape itself.

Within this framework, Sheehan is able to tease us into a sense of complicity – not with the violence that has occurred off-screen, though he hooks us with that. He seems to be pointing to a number of things simultaneously – as with the narrator here, we are pulled along, looking at the seemingly inane events that present themselves in front of us in the hopes that with careful observation we might be led toward some deeper, better understanding of the atrocities that occur everywhere outside of our fields of vision. He also seems to be suggesting that what we capture with our recording devices, within so-called reality, can somehow allow us to re-enter our lives to suss out how it is we have come to lose what it is we’ve lost along the way. We are complicit in a blinding nostalgia, one that strips away the horrible things that have occurred to others in order to foreground the often minor wounds that we have endured ourselves. Often we can’t seem to sort out the clues that would lead us to see, beyond doubt, how our lives have piled up through various screens and frames into the things they’ve become and in this way we ultimately remain foreign to ourselves. The story ends with the narrator asking his daughter what she received for her birthday, but that moment is weighted with all of the other things that we have come to know by this point and really hits with the weight of a lead ball.  We can’t know what she’s really received.  Neither can she.   

Throughout the collection, Sheehan is working with characters and scenarios that really cut to the core of our common neuroses. The characters here are slightly more amplified in their quirks than the common man – one has not left his apartment for 72 hours (this not counting the 30 days prior, during which his television had not been shut off) during an apocalyptic nuclear event called “The Horror.” He cannot pull himself from the Gilligan’s Island marathon that’s running on TBS. While it remains a question as to why he hasn’t seen any interruptive commentary by the talking heads, this doesn’t deter from the impact of the story. The story showcases Sheehan’s ability to fold research into a narrative and his ability to build something out of parts that wouldn’t seem to go together, but ultimately fit snugly with his deft handling. This piece contains one of the best lists of colors I have ever seen employed. It may well be the only one I’ve seen, but it’s damn impressive.

I won’t go into detail about the time-skipping story about teens engaged in a game of Civilization and a rash of T.S. Eliot-inspired graffiti in Scranton, PA or the one about the girl who fakes a coma in order to avoid embarrassment, but know that these stories are worth your time and your pennies. My attempts at explication don’t really do the work justice. It’s super-heady writing without any of the headache. My advice would be just to get it and read it and when and if Mr. Sheehan comes to town to read, go see him read and have him rebuild the world in front of your eyes.


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