Travel Log Fiction – The Orthography of Madness and Misgivings – a unique and compelling collection by Michael Wertenberg
One of the challenges of reviewing a short story collection is deciding what genre to classify it under. Michael Wertenberg’s collection, The Orthography of Madness and Misgivings, is no exception. In fact, this unique collection presents a further wrinkle to the genre dilemma since its stories, while undoubtedly fiction, are organized chronologically into sections based on the country the author was living in at the time of their creation. Each section is prefaced with a brief biographical essay, which serves to lead the reader along with the author across Europe and give veiled glimpses into the author’s evolving (or devolving) mental state.
The author certainly has a penchant for the dark and the strange. And much of his writing would appeal to fans of literary horror. Yet, there is just as much humor and the surreal to appeal to fans of other genres as well.
Taken as a whole, I’ve decided to title my review of this work as “travel log fiction”. I’m not sure if that’s actually a genre or not, but I feel it is the best short description of this work.
About the Collection
The Orthography of Madness and Misgivings by Michael Wertenberg
compiles 25 stories written between 2014 and 2018, many of which were originally published in literary reviews and genre anthologies such as Flame Tree Publishing, Selene Quarterly, and The Literary Hatchet.
The collection is divided into 5 sections, corresponding to the 5 countries the author was living in at the time of the stories’ creation. This layout provides a chronology and momentum to the collection, and the brief biographical passages that precede each section add an intimacy to the work that is quite effective.
In many of the stories (especially the first few) the author has his tongue firmly in cheek. Yet, as he advances in his journey, he opens up to more literary and surreal narrations, and, although the stories are clearly works of fiction, the reader is granted insight into the author’s emotional and mental state as he moves from country to country in search of his place in a world he feels is slipping away from his ever the more desperate grasp.
Some of my Personal Favorites
From the first section, Paris, France, the standout in my opinion is The Hand We’re Dealt, a tension-filled Hitchcockian confrontation between a psychic and her mysterious client (originally published in a volume of Pulp Modern).
From the section, Lisbon, Portugal, in the opening story, My First Few Months in Portugal (originally published n the Byant Publishing anthology BLÆKK), its unassuming title and casual narrative style did not prepare me for the odd and unsettling turns the story took. Like many of the stories in this collection, I still can’t decide if I find it touching or deeply troubling, though I suspect that is the author’s intent.
The third section, Tirana, Albania, has perhaps two of the funniest stories in the collection, Pins and Needles and All Dogs. The fourth section, Ljubljana, Slovenia, contains a brilliant piece of flash fiction in Boxes (originally published in Likely Red).
And the final section, Budapest, Hungary, features a story, Making Soup in Hungary (originally published in The Cantabrigian) which casts the whole collection in a whole new light, further blurring the lines between experienced reality and imagined reality.
About Michael Wertenberg
What I can glean from the author, based on this collection, should be taken with a grain of salt. He seems to have a loose and troubled relationship with reality. According to his claims, he is French-American and a former musician who suffers from hyperacusis (an extreme sensitivity to sound).
The collection starts off in Paris, France then moves across Europe into the Balkans and Central Europe to end up in Budapest, Hungary. He makes no reference to a career aside from forays in music, stand-up comedy, and teaching. He alludes to struggling with loneliness when working from home, and he seems to attempt to overcome these feelings by interacting with characters of his making as well as with the cats he purportedly lives with.
At times the author seems to be frightened by the delusions he is aware he has let consume some of his life. Other times, he seems to be more afraid of the reality his delusions have failed to cover up. Despite the threads of loneliness and mental illness that permeate his stories, there is a persistent playfulness and humor that makes his passage through Europe both compelling and endearing.