Bedtime for Seneca: Five Tragic Tales
by M. Duda

"Chrissy rocked in her seat and whimpered. Some people whispered. Andrew stared at himself, two rows of seats back, holding a comic book, and hunkered down, as if hiding in the chair."

Most people love a happy ending. Although tales like Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet continue to be read and even adapted to film, the most popular stories are usually ones where the main character somehow manages to rise above circumstances, beat the odds, or find true love. But real life is messy and sometimes, despite our best efforts, ends in tragedy. The ancient Greek writers recognized this, and the literary form that emerged from their understanding attempted to impart some form of moral lesson from the devastating events they wrote about. While clear lessons may be at times lacking in Duda's stories, the despair is ever-present. Despite this, his short collection of "Tragic Tales" makes for some interesting reading and reveals a lot about the human condition.

Appropriately named for the Roman statesman who was forced by Emperor Nero to commit suicide, the author's book recounts five stories of varying length and quality that feature a main character who is trapped in a situation where the only doors out seem to lead to either loss or destruction. "Three Nights in Budapest," for example, stars a protagonist whose family has fallen apart and who is still haunted by the abuse he received as a child. Arguably the best story in the collection, the plot follows the actions of a man named Andrew who is convinced that all relationships, just like his marriage, are fated to end in failure. Determined to have his young daughter back in his life, he tracks down his estranged wife through the aid of a private detective and then attempts to steal his child back from her. But the legacy of abuse which possibly led to the death of his marriage in the first place still clings to him at the apartment where his family has taken shelter, leading him to attack his wife and produce further scars in the mind of his child as he tries to escape with her.

The other tales in Duda's collection are equally as dark. "Mortal Image" features a female harbinger called Life who is sent by Elijah to complete a task with Death at the bedside of a dying man. Forced against her wishes to interact with the old man, her memories begin to seep back from her mortal life, causing her to recognize him as her father and the one who caused her death. Unlike the other stories, this one offers a small glimmer of hope amid the tragedy as Life is given the chance to forgive and move on. In contrast, there is no hope in "New Friends Made" where the lead character is given the choice between death or "life" along with his enthralled wife as a vampire. Nor do "Tiny Dragon" or "Nervous" offer much beyond mental or spiritual demise. The former, a horror story with science fiction overtones, chronicles the fate of man with mother issues while the latter futuristic tale revolves around the character's decision to either give up smoking or lose his last chance at "love" with an android.

Duda's offerings are saturated with the hopelessness of Kafka yet have a poignancy found in the best short stories of Anne Tyler. The themes of child abuse and selfishness coupled with their long-lasting effect on the lives of both the victims and others they are in relationship with permeate the collection, giving it cohesiveness as well as depth. The author's tales may not provide the happy ending many readers crave, but their probing of the inner tragedies that so many people deal with make them well worth reading.

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