Observations of the Coral Reef
Offering brief snippets of lives, discussions, and descriptions, Observations frequently fluctuates from profound beauty to offensive banality and back again, just like life itself. With no clear theme connecting the short works, this collection is more a series of musings than it is anything else. As disparate as they are, the individual pieces occasionally aspire to brilliance.
Vaughan’s poetry, in particular, offers several high points throughout the work. “Hatred” is a chilling piece that skillfully references Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and “Flower” is full of gorgeous imagery and a hopeful message. Two other pieces that might be considered poetry and are worthy of note are “We Live in Terrible Times” – a simple but poignant look at modern society – and “Heroes” – a delightful piece about, well, heroes. All of the poetic pieces are wonderful and truly show Vaughan’s ability to capture emotion and images in a deeply felt way.
Unfortunately, a fair portion of his prose does not live up to the standard he sets in verse. For some reason, Vaughan continually returns to middle-aged male characters looking for a cheap thrill, whether from outrunning the cops or from flirting with a younger woman. The short format of the individual pieces does not do these men justice. If we were to have full access to their lives and motivations, they might be sympathetic. However, as we only see them in their moments of thrill seeking, they come off as immature at best and creepy at worst. The only story featuring this type of character that I truly enjoyed was “Enlightenment,” in which the narrator pokes fun at himself. I would love it if Vaughan spent more time exploring this brand of self-awareness and less time indulging his character’s foibles.
Among his soaring poetry and annoying characters, Vaughan has also sprinkled heartbreakingly accurate descriptions of depression, seemingly masturbatory “Lecture Notes” in which the narrator explains his life philosophy without explaining why, a series of strange e-mails from “Natalia,” and a fascinating piece called “Coral Reef.” There is no rhyme or reason to what is included, except that it is all interesting (if not always fun). Observations takes the reader on a roller coaster, and, like a roller coaster, it leaves the rider vacillating between “I can’t take this anymore” and “This is awesome!”