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Review: Gates of Eden

April 28, 2011

Gates of Eden is Ethan Coen’s (one half of the amazing directing partnership that is the Coen Brothers) first, and at the present time, his only collection of short stories. It’s obvious he has an aptitude for telling stories and these stories do have his brand of absurd characters with impeccable and hyper-realised dialogue.

In Destiny, a amateur boxer gets caught up in a world of two feuding mobsters. Coen writes the mobster’s dialogue with relish and a great cadence that springs off the page:

“Course, he didn’t tell me the reason you was lookin’ for yaself was cuz yas a fuckin’ Bagadonuts.”

Or

“Shut the fuck up. I got a personal situation. I got a wife here fuckin’ someone else. His dick. Her pussy. Woom-pah woom-pah woom-pah. Do I gotta draw yas an illustration?”

Unfortunately, the collection really highlights his strengths and his weaknesses. He is a natural storyteller but his medium is screenwriting, and so, his stories don’t really hit the mark as a short story. Also, a lot of the stories are written as mini scripts of radio plays or monologues which are unfortunate. He has the hardest time with what appears to be the more personal, or let’s say down-to-earth stories centring on Jewish themes. They don’t come across as being as punchy and feel quite meandering.

Of course, there are a couple of entertaining stories such as Cosa Minapolidan, where a mafia crew sets up in Minneapolis and find themselves very much fish out of water. Personally, I thought the title story, Gates of Eden was the best one. It’s quite a sad, elegant tale but with moments of sheer absurdity. Plus, it has a great character introduction that immediately gives a sense of who this man is:

My duty is to the public – not that they ever thank me. Your average consumer doesn’t know that I’m the only thing standing between him and chaos. Standards are what make us a society. A community agrees. A gallon is a gallon. A pound is a pound. He who says fifteen ounces is a pound – he must be put down. A pound is a pound, or we go bango. I hate a gyp. I hate it more than anything. The man who laughs at standards – that man must be put down. We are none of us perfect; I know that. But we must agree on what perfection is.

In the end, this collection really highlights Ethan Coen’s strength as a screenwriter. It’s worth a read if you’re a fan of his films.

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