A man gets cucked by Elon Musk on the moon. another man falls wildly in love with his best friends’ teenage daughter. Yet another ejaculates onto the cover of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian because he, “wanted to know what it felt like to be intimate with something great.”
Here are the young men of High School Romance, the debut short story collection from Marston Hefner, the 32-year-old son of the late Hugh Hefner, founder of the inimitable Playboy Magazine, where escape, or rescue rather, is always subjective. Marston’s stories range from emotionally autobiographical to explicit auto-fiction—his father even makes an appearance. But, mind you, Marston isn’t cashing in on his father’s legacy as much as he’s weaving a narrative constellation wherein the archetype of the impersonal father weighs heavily.
For one thing, the book is published by Clash; a small, scrappy, independent press, which has helped to advance the recent renaissance in print culture. Naturally, if Marston had written a different sort of book—a commercial memoir, for instance—he could have had an audience with any Big 3 publisher. “I had an agent, and when my dad passed away, [my agent] sent me a message, ‘Are you thinking of writing a memoir?’ I said ‘No, I’m not. My dad just died’.” What Marston delivers instead is a spritely literary collection with 20th century flavor. The circumstances of the stories are fictional, sometimes absurd, but they are fueled by the pathos of real feeling, real experience, real family history.
From his living room desktop in Los Angeles, after forty minutes of lively conversation, Marston asks, “May I go to the bathroom?” Like Marston, the voice of High School Romance is mannered and friendly and a little bit old-fashioned. Owing to this sense of decorum, this regard for the reader, his narrators, no matter how depraved, make for good company. He takes influence from the literary giants of the last century—Gertrude Stein, Gordon Lish, David Foster Wallace—as well as from what we agree to call, “the simulated autism of alt-lit.”
In one of the collection’s more ethically adventurous stories, You and Me and Like, where do we go after all this time? Marston’s narrator—whose sexual interest oscillates between his girlfriend and his dog—shares his first name. The effect of this kind of meta-fictional choice is seductive. The writer assumes an implicitly confessional posture, and the reader feels as if she’s being confided in. “There’s risk-taking involved in my pieces,” he says. “How far are you willing to go to make this short story special? And putting my [full] name in some of these stories ups the ante for me; It requires more courage.”
But Marston isn’t throwing around his name in order to dog-whistle to the old guard of Playboy enthusiasts. Instead, he is borrowing from a literary tradition of writers who have centered their names and identities in their work—writers like Sean Thor Conroe, Sheila Heti, and Dave Eggers. Any fiction writer who toys with their own experience assumes moral liability, but the stakes are particularly high for Marston, whose legacy and last name are synonymous with old American propriety. “There’s no point taking a risk when the work doesn’t excite me,” he admits, “I’m only going to worry about making the work so good it justifies its own existence.”
Photographed by Shane McCauley
Written by Anika Levy
Styled by Gorge Villalpando
Groomer: Sonia Lee for Exclusive Artists
Stylist Assistants: Frankie Benkovic and Chloe Cussen
Location: Blu Space Malibu