Burning Books
A Review by Thomas Frick

One Inch Equals Twenty-Five Miles

author: Sumner Carnahan

This is a thrilling and even dangerous book. The contents page entices you with twenty-five titles, each in its own typeface, like a sampler of brightly wrapped candies. And the visual treatment of the stories themselves beckons you in with the verve of an attractive magazine. Oh, I’ll start with this one, you think, it looks good.

And then bam! Without warning you are plunged inside a different consciousness. Remember that childhood conundrum—What would it be like to really BE another person? Well, it’s just as exciting and uncomfortable as you suspected. You accompany these wandering souls, often in their own words or rushing down their stream of consciousness, as they relentlessly plow through the fog of life or careen along the crumbling edges of their existences.

In “On Empty” a young woman in art school drifts into a mild sort of homeless madness as gradually all her former dreams, desires, and points of human reference, even language, fall away. At the end we see her, as if in the distance, buying thrift-store paintings, the last embodiment of her tenuous sense of self. The trajectory here is all the more harrowing for being so quietly drawn.

In “Full” you’re behind the wheel of a souped-up blue Corvette, racing down the highway, trying to escape your troubled life as its shards rattle around in your head. The clipped, talking-to-yourself language of this story, the deft modulation between third and first person—as the protagonist finally expends his energy, decides to turn around and “head in”—are masterful, and emblematic of the high literary skills and emotional subtleties conveyed throughout this rich and varied book.

The channeling of “Jane” in “Jane’s Version of the Last Sixteen Years” is so dead-on that the reader seems to become both the relentless speaker and the silent listener, that latter exhorted periodically with variants of “now tell me all about you,” while being prevented by the former from ever doing so.

Other stories here—completely different but just as effective—take the form of a metaphysical rant, a warped instruction manual, a bureaucratic memo, and a chain letter, showing Carnahan’s full command of the linguistic keyboard. In fact the author has been involved with avant-garde music and with the performance of her texts in various contexts. This makes perfect sense, as the rhythm and music of the language here is a large part of its power.

Pay close attention to the title of this resonant collection: One Inch Equals Twenty-Five Miles lets you know just what you’re getting into. A few pages can contain an entire world, and that this slender and elegant book contains so many, so succinctly rendered, is a marvel.

—Thomas Frick, author of The Iron Boys, Los Angeles