Tales of Accidental Genius, Simon Van Booy’s latest collection of short stories, unveils the beauty and sadness in the lives of everyday people. Each story opens in isolation, hinging upon the actions of the titular geniuses. But genius has nothing to do with intelligence; it lives at the crossroads between resourcefulness and compassion.
None of the characters in Tales of Accidental Genius are at their best. Van Booy plunges the reader into their lives, communicating the melancholy and minute details holding their attention. While each character’s story arc may first appear inconsequential, the emotional weight of each is enough to draw tears.
In “The Goldfish,” for example, an old man is concerned for the wellbeing of his beloved pet fish, Piper. Multiple phone calls and visits to find someone who can help Piper yield no fruit until a young pet shop worker finally lends a hand. The worker not only solves the problem but also gives the old man hope in his otherwise monotonous and solitary life.
Van Booy’s stories, most of which are quick reads, excel at building tension as the reader slowly comprehends the full picture of the characters’ lives. In “A Slow and Deliberate Disappearance,” the close relationship between two nursing home residents is juxtaposed against the meeting of a divorced magician and a young nurse. The story explores how the elderly residents’ memories have failed them, revealing that the two residents who believe they met in the home are in fact a married couple of 50 years. The pain of aging and the loss of self collide with the power of love in this haunting tale.
Van Booy bridges vulnerability and kindness, allowing broken characters to find comfort in each other while maintaining their dignity. Whether it’s a former bodyguard helping a homeless man on his street or a couple confronting their darkest moment, Van Booy doesn’t create victims. His stories are small windows to compassion, providing an empathic lens through which to view the quiet ways people live their lives.
The seventh and final story feels out of place, however. “Golden Helper II,” a mock-up of a screenplay alluded to in another story, possesses a supernatural element that doesn’t match the subtlety of Van Booy’s other narratives. It disconnects the reader from the previous tales, drawing him out of the moment and forcing him to reorient to a different pace.
That said, Tales of Accidental Genius proves to be a moving, humorous and engaging look at the ways people lean on and support one another. The first six stories fit together like houses on a street, each one slightly different but with a sense of continuity that maintains the whole of this enthralling collection.