Sunday, November 30, 2014

Man V. Nature (Diane Cook)

I have been reading a lot of short fiction lately. On my Goodreads page, I've been giving all these collections short reviews, mentioning stories that are highlights and perhaps pitfall stories that don't thrill me. I don't do long reviews of short story collections because it's at least four times as hard as reviewing a novel. I just lied to you, because I have written two long reviews of a collection--last year, I reviewed George Saunders' Tenth of December, and a few weeks later, Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber. After I did, I swore never to review another collection at length again.

Oops.

In the last year-ish, I have read some stunning stuff: the collections of Aimee Bender, my number one short fiction author, Laura van den Berg and Alissa Nutting, Eric Puchner, Daphne du Maurier--I could go on and on here, but I'll stop. I did not feel compelled to give these collections lengthy reviews, even though I found them to be absolutely marvelous. Just yesterday, I finished Man V. Nature, the debut collection of author Diane Cook, and I knew that I needed to tell everyone about every one of her stories. So here we are. Like much of the short (and, let's be honest, long) fiction I read, Cook's narratives are often surreal; they're not strictly fantasy or science fiction, but there's something off about their worlds.

The first story is "Moving On." The day I read it, I had to close the book and walk away because I needed time to process it. It's not often that a piece of writing shuts me down that hard, but the story about widow relocation (that is, if your spouse dies, you are required to marry again) hurt. It's a quiet story, but it ate at me. Ouch.

The next is "The Way the End of Days Should Be," which is a post-apocalyptic piece (but you probably guessed that). Like a lot of this kind of fiction, it doesn't ever really explain what happened to the world, and for a lot of readers, this is frustrating: they want to know the hows and the whys, and, to be frank, I don't care. This is the story of a man at the end of the world, a very selfish man. It's a great character study.

There are several thematic siblings in this vein: "Man V. Nature" is another "we're the last people alive" story that really plays with reader perception and narrative authority and unlikeability (i.e., how far can we go on hating our main character and still invest in him?). "It's Coming" is a Godzilla-esque story, but it focuses less on the destruction of giant buildings and more on the poignant--or grotesque--emotions that come when people are faced with the end.

One of the highlights (this is a stupid statement, because all the stories are highlights) is "The Not-Needed Forest," about boys in the wilderness. 5 years ago, I read Lord of the Flies, very genuinely excited about reading this book that represented "the dark side of humanity," etc. I was sorely disappointed in Golding's novel, which was boring at best. "The Not-Needed Forest," on the other hand, is everything I wanted that that book didn't give me: it's brutal, it's moving, it's violent, it's heartfelt. A++!

"Somebody's Baby" is about a serial baby-napper--this won the Calvino Prize, and seems to be a lot of people's favorite. It is a really beautiful, devastating portrait of motherhood; maybe there's an exploration of suburbian deadness, too, and it's just as soul-rending. There are so many books and short stories out there about being trapped in suburbia but this is not one of them. Cook explores maternity in several stories, in fact--"Marrying Up" and "Flotsam" are also about being a mother in some way or another, and what I love about all of these stories is how their horror is so muffled. Days later, they are still shrieking in my insides, but it's a quiet, insistent wail. I am in awe.

"Girl on Girl" is a chilling tale about friendship and desperation. How far will one girl go to get her friend back, to be liked and valued? It's like a high school movie gone terribly wrong, and I loved it because it made my insides feel weird. "The Mast Year" amazed me because of the fine, incredibly dainty tightrope on which it balances, teetering between claustrophobia and solitude; every one of these stories is so painfully evocative. I was constantly surprised by the depth of the feelings I felt pouring out of me as I read.

The remaining two stories in this collection are also thematically linked: there's "A Wanted Man" and "Meteorologist Dave Santana." They both concern themselves with sexual desire and desirability; "A Wanted Man" features a guy who all women want to father their children, and it asks a lot of thoughtful questions about the archetype of a "player." "Meteorologist Dave Santana" flips this convention--it's about a woman whose appetite for sex is insatiable and monstrous. I loved this story because it's reminiscent (in all the right ways) of Alissa Nutting's Tampa. "Meteorologist" captures the same icky, squirmy feelings (minus the pedophilia) and throws it in our faces gleefully, forcing us to think about objectification and the female gaze.

Man V. Nature is one of the strongest short story collections I've ever read. My three favorites are "Moving On," "Meteorologist Dave Santana," and "The Not-Needed Forest," though it's impossible to go wrong. Seriously, if you open the book to any story, you'll be delighted. I just know it.

My rating: 5/5
Man V. Nature on Goodreads
See what I've been reading lately!

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