Mark Steele’s latest fiction offering is many things: ambitious, challenging, absurd, infuriating, and ultimately rewarding. The Most Important Thing Happening: A Novel in Stories, as described in its full title, is a novel whose narrative unfolds through the telling of 11 individual short stories – a unique and perhaps suspect approach. The book also has the distinction of being the initial offering of publisher David C. Cook’s new digital-first book line.
While there is no intention of hiding that the stories are in some way connected, the author keeps the reader off-balance throughout. The first story, “oz. of God”, is a dark and difficult tale of intrigue and love with a little supernatural thrown in for good measure.
Just when one believes the tone has been established, the reader is introduced to a tale bordering on science fiction (“The Most Important Thing Happening”). The protagonist is teleported, seemingly against his will, to locations throughout the world where his duty is to journal about events he witnesses. In each case, the occasion represents the single most significant occurrence at that moment in the entire world.
Subsequent stories play out in a similar manner – at least for the first five stories. Then it takes a turn toward self-awareness in “99 Pages”. To share more would ruin the discovery, but leave it said that starting here, pieces begin to fall into place.
Steele’s approach is both intriguing and demanding. It engages the reader immediately and requires one’s unwavering attention to detail. Frankly, armed with the upfront knowledge of an eventual association, it could be difficult to focus on the merits of one story without being distracted by the search for a possible link to others.
The way in which Steele manages to weave together the story-lines is innovative to say the least. It takes a creative original to demonstrate how two men fighting over a sandwich could possibly relate to the adventures of one origami monkey.
I will admit, that in one or two cases, it is a struggle to identify the function of a given story within the larger narrative framework. I also found that the author could come across as a bit too clever in his use of literary devices. One could almost sense that Steele was winking at the reader as certain episodes played out.
The Most Important Thing Happening is an enjoyable and satisfying read. The themes are universal and communicated to the reader in a subtle and occasionally cryptic manner. For people who enjoy an uncommon and unconventional storytelling experience, this should not disappoint. Having said this, if the fantastical or absurd aren’t your cup of tea, you may want to steer clear.
Note: As of this writing (February 8, 2013), you can pick up the Kindle edition of Steele’s novel on Amazon for less than $3:
The Most Important Thing Happening: A Novel in Stories