…I can’t help but wonder that maybe we need this kinds of moments. Not moments of quiet, but moments when our lives are upended by violent tragedy, monsters, zombies, because without them, how would we meet the men and women of our dreams, how would we make up for the sins of our pasts, how would we show our true natures – brave, caring, strong, intelligent?
I wonder, How would we?
—“Escape from the Mall”
Manuel Gonzales bakes pies. And he writes fiction. I have no idea if his pies are any good, but his short stories are terrific.
I’ll admit it: I prefer my fiction weird. Oh, it’s not that I don’t truly appreciate a gentle coming-of-age tale, or a piece that powerfully employs characterization and conflict in a conventional setting; I can be truly captivated by great realism. But – my heart belongs to weird.
In The Miniature Wife, Gonzales approaches weird from every possible angle. And a few impossible ones.
There’s the discourse-weird: the fictional obituaries, the fake journalistic interviews. And the situation-weird: the plane circling the airport for twenty years, a woman who’s injured by sound. And the supernatural-weird: zombies, a werewolf, a unicorn. But when was the last time a werewolf story turned out to be about family structure and Oedipal conflict? Or a zombie story left you wondering about the premise, or a war story shifted, like the figure-ground vase optical illusion, into something else?
This is weird in the service of the living, breathing soul of people who experience weird every day of their lives, whether it’s a guy in “The Artist’s Voice” who talks through his ears – or just one of us real-life people trying to get through to our spouse. This is weird that makes you forget it’s a zombie story because it becomes a story of growth and change; weird that makes the werewolf the least important character in the story; weird that forces you up against all the trials of the real world, weird that makes you cry.
How do people deal with extraordinary circumstances – retreat, attack, adapt? What needs – for love, for communication, for creation – are so great, they overcome impossible obstacles? What’s amazing to me is how effectively these things can be evoked by, say, an obituary. Or a zombie story.
It’s a weird that is always, always, about something else. Read these stories twice: once for the surface story, and once for the meta story. It’s immense fun.
I decided to read this book because Aimee Bender loved it, though I was primed by the time I read that review: he’d published in One Story, my favorite literary magazine (before I’d subscribed, unfortunately), and I’d been hearing a lot of good things about this collection.
I’ve only recently begun paying attention to how story collection are put together. In this case, I might not have been able to miss it. The opening story – the One Story offering from 2005 – provides a splendid introduction, setting us up for an unexpected ride. The final story, quoted above, puts the entire book in perspective. Maybe we need to look outside the ordinary, the safe, the comfortable, to find out what we’re capable of. Who knows, we might find a zombie that makes us cry, or a hit man who makes us laugh.
Rather than enumerate the stories in the order they appear, I’m going to clump them into categories.
As nervous as it makes me to put those two words together, given how recent events have been handled by the news media, that’s the only thing I can call this: the interview as fiction. As a narrative technique it creates a third-person story via first-person: a story, told in third-person, and there’s the meta story, told in first person. I’m not sure if there’s a technical description of this (please tell me if there is), but it’s wonderful. It evokes much of the medical non-fiction I have (Sacks, Roueche, Klawans). It may not be by accident that the content of these stories leans scientific.
“Farewell, Africa” (available online at Guernica)
It was not the speech we knew. Mitchell had managed somehow to boil it down to its essence, or maybe he made it into something entirely new. I can’t remember it now, not its specifics, not past those first few words, and Mitchell hadn’t written it down, had abandoned, at the last moment, his own notes, and cannot remember it himself. It spoke of tragedy, I think. I think, too, that it spoke to the enormous loss of life, to the sense that this world had been pushed to the brink, but in truth, the speech might not have been about any of that. It was not the speech we knew, yet by the end of the speech, I felt as if I weren’t listening to Mitchell as he spoke in front of us, as if the words weren’t coming from him, but had been born inside my own head, had always been part of my own thoughts, that Mitchell was simply reminding me of something I already knew and had somehow forgotten.
I’m astounded at how wonderful this was to read on so many levels. The overt story, a near-future history about the snafus at an elaborate art gala and a former presidential speech-writer who’s never managed to live up to the one great speech he once wrote. But then, with the last paragraph, it becomes a different story entirely, a story about how this story is told, about the story some are telling right now. About where the characters – where we – are directing our attention. And, by the way, there’s some great writer-stuff in there as well:
Whenever he would come across the speech in a bookstore or when he was at someone’s house and saw that they owned a copy of the speech, which was, for a long time, being reprinted in textbooks and on its own, he would pull it off the shelf and turn to the beginning of his speech and then start to cross out words and sentences and, sometimes, entire sections.
“Once,” he told me, “I got carried away and accidentally edited a friend’s copy of the speech down to a five-minute affair. Ten minutes if you read it really slowly.” He laughed and said, “I saw what I’d done and quietly put the book back on the shelf and then, later in the evening, made a show of finding it on the shelf again and pulling it down and then pretended to be shocked at what someone else had done to it. My friend was so embarrassed and upset that for a moment I almost told him the truth, but I never did.”
Read it for the speech. Read it for the flirtation. Read it for Australia, Japan, and Africa, before it’s too late.
“The Artist’s Voice”
The question I want to ask him, but don’t have the heart to, or don’t need to because I feel like I already know the answer to it, is this: is it worth it? This piece of music you are composing in your head, will it really be so good that it is worth all of this?
What would you sacrifice for art? What if the very thought process involved in creation left you tied up in knots, unable to move? Would you still create? But that isn’t the only question raised by this story. It’s also, again, about the human need to communicate, no matter what. Karl Abbasonov speaks through his ears. There’s a fairly technical explanation of how this is possible (which seems fairly reasonable until the final stages), but don’t let that scare you away; the heart of the story requires no scientific knowledge at all. If you ever read Berton Roueche in TNY (I have several volumes of his collected “Annals of Medicine” columns) or Oliver Sacks (the neurologist with the heart of a poet), you’ll feel right at home. And if you haven’t, but you’ve ever had a need that couldn’t be squelched by the limitations of reality, you’ll feel right at home anyway. The presence of the first-person narrator allows for voices, points of view, other than Karl’s, to be heard. It’s a terrific technique, and if I ever take another crack at fiction, it’s one I may explore.
“The Disappearance of the Sebali Tribe”
If you were to ask her, as I did, how it felt knowing that she had helped uncover the Sebali tribe hoax, she might shake her head and smile, somewhat ruefully, and say, “I hardly did a thing about it, really.” She might then ask you where you’re from, if you’d had a nice trip, if you needed another cup of coffee, if you’d ever been to Boston before, if you’d made a visit to the Common yet, “which is really much nicer in the spring and early summer,” she might go on to say, “but we just had a good snow, and you should really go see the park before too many other people go tramping through it.” And then she might mention Frederick Law Olmsted, who, she will explain, is best known for his design of Central Park in Manhattan, but who also designed a series of parks joining the Boston Common to its outlying neighbors, which is called the Emerald Necklace, and then she might suggest that you visit Jamaica Pond, a component of the Emerald Necklace, located in Jamaica Plain, “which hardly anyone ever goes to anymore,” she will continue, “because the neighborhood’s been run down a bit, but it’s a nice park really and if you go at the right time, it’s quiet and empty, and you can sit on the bench and look out over the pond that is there and sometimes see a goose or a swan or a cormorant, even. But if you go there, then you’ve got to visit El Oriental for lunch, and since the thought of anyone else going to El Oriental only makes me want to go there, too, then I just might have to join you,” which is how I eventually found myself sitting with her, one recent afternoon, in a small Cuban restaurant (El Oriental de Cuba) in Jamaica Plain… I tried my best to figure out how this small, unassuming young woman from Abilene, Texas, uncovered the truth behind one of the largest anthropological scams of the past 50 years.
Gonzales doesn’t just have a grasp on narrative technique and theme; his prose is beautiful, too. But it’s not just beautiful: this paragraph, wandering and meandering, also reveals character, character that I think becomes crucial later in the story. And by the end, I had a whole different theory of the Sebali Tribe hoax.
A Meritorious Life: The Fictional Obituaries
These short interstitial pieces, a subdivision of “Fictional Journalism,” yet with a flavor all their own, capture some of the little absurdities of life.
“Juan Refugio Rocha: A Meritorious Life”
When the fire started, Rocha was with the gorillas, standing outside their habitat talking to them, as he often did, from a safe distance.
Remember the old E. M. Forster tenet: “The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot.” This piece gives us the story, and plenty of nuance to construct our own plot. I love a writer who trusts the reader – but still prepares for the worst, just in case.
“William Corbin: A Meritorious Life”
Corbin owed his fascination with Klouns to his father, a village constable, who often took his three sons (of which William was the youngest) to variety acts and lowbrow, death-defying street shows, carnivals performed by traveling circuses hailing from Eastern European regions near or bordering the Black Sea. Inevitably, performing as part of one troupe or another, would be a Kloun, who, big-footed, of pale complexion, and with an over-expressive face, would often steal the show through popular movements skits and drama tumbles and the performance of ineffable sleights of hand.… One day, a young William broke from his family, found his way to a small congregation of Klouns, separate from the amassing crowd, and offer himself to them as an apprentice.
Oh come on, where did you think clowns came from? The “obit voice” of this adds to the mounting humor; I couldn’t stop smiling.
“Henry Richard Niles: A Meritorious Life”
Niles’s first words were oeghene lachen. And from there, he let loose with a string of vowel sounds, grunts, and guttural whines released at an imperceptible and near constant speed: “The sound of it hurt our ears,” his father said. It would be another three years before his parents would learn that his first words, when translated into English, were eyes laughing. Some believe this to have been Niles’s first poem.
Don’t worry if you’re not familiar with Ostrogothic; no one is. You’ll get the jist of it anyway. Language – poetry – is a very strange thing, and sometimes the need for expression is so powerful, it leaps over what is possible.
“Juan Manuel Gonzales: A Meritorious Life”
A cute little O. Henry story. I keep wondering if there’s any significance to the character’s name.
“Harold Withy Keith: A Meritorious Life”
According to hospital records, Harold and Martin Keith were born simultaneously, and, never quite the younger or the elder twin, H. W. Keith was referred to by family members as the Left Twin.
Seems a man tries to turn himself into a plant, but maybe not. I didn’t quite get this one, which tells me I’ve still got my judgment in spite of my growing enthusiasm for this collection.
Supernatural Creature Stories: The Werewolf, the Unicorn, the Zombies
I’m a little concerned these stories might lose the literary-fiction audience – though they might also lure in a whole other audience. Wouldn’t that be… zombie-like.
While I’ve always loved high-end spec fic, I’ve also been pretty dismissive of zombie and werewolf stories (and vampire stories as well, though none are included in this volume). It’s the anti-Twilight reaction. I don’t know much about the folklore of these things, something about silver bullets and Jack Nicholson in a terrible movie quite some time ago. But here, these creatures become participants in something else, something wonderful. Recalculating…
“All of Me”
The zombie in me would like to make a few things clear. The zombie in me would like to make it clear that there is no zombie in me, per se. Would like to make it known that there is only me, in fact, and that all of me is zombie.
What I find especially fascinating about this story is, again, how it’s told. I can’t say more without venturing into spoiler territory, but some nuances pointed me in a particular direction. Of course, sometimes I go in wrong directions, but I still wonder. No matter how you see it, this is, again, beautiful writing – beautiful for a purpose (motion, train of thought: look at the rhythm in this paragraph) – beautiful enough to make a zombie seem sympathetic, courageous, heroically flawed:
There was that one time. There was that one time with the memories, a slew of them. Relentless memories, a series of them, flashing through my head for fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes, one right after the other, nonstop, these memories, in no particular order, of no special significance, but personal, deeply personal, brief sensations, images, smells, sounds, forced out of hiding, maybe, by that darker part of me, forced out into the open to be devoured or simply to dissipate, those last remaining pieces of the me that was made before. A park bench, the quality of light in a dormitory cafeteria, the smell of lavender, the smell of cooking oil cooked too hot, a swimming pool, a bloodied knee, soft, soft lips, a blue couch, a darkroom, a bright blue sky, a man’s voice saying “sometimes I just don’t know about you, son,” a flat tire, a long, hot stretch of road, mist rising off a small pond, a kite shaped like a swan overhead, the first cool day in October, and on and on, these memories rose up from within me, traveled through me and then out. I staggered under the rush of them, and then they were gone, so quickly gone, I stumbled, grabbed for a chair, sat down hard on the floor, and that was it. I remember them still, but I remember them now as things I have seen in a movie or on the television, as disconnected sensations that don’t touch me at all.
So let’s not demean ourselves with talk of who I was and if this person still lives inside me. If my eyes are this person’s eyes and if in them you can see remnants of who this person once was.
Let’s not resort to this kind of nostalgic preening.
Let’s not reduce my story to that kind of tragedy.
Instead, let’s remark on how unsurprising this outcome really is, and then let’s move on, inexorably, deliberately on.
In his Book Club Conversation with The Rumpus, Gonzales said he wrote this a long time ago, “just on the cusp or right before the cusp of all the zombie stuff happening,” but he never placed it. Someone dropped the ball when they rejected this one; it’s great. And I say that as someone who hates zombie stories. I do wish I could get Lily Tomlin out of my head, though.
“Escape from the Mall”
This story has nothing to do with me. I know this, even as I am in the middle of it. This story has everything to do with Roger and Mary and Tyrone and the security guard. I don’t know the security guard’s name, but he’s got a look about him, a look that makes me think that this story is his story, too, more his story, anyway, than my own. He’s got that reformed-addict-turned-security-guard-waiting-to-make-the-ultimate-sacrifice-for-the-misery-he-caused-in-his-youth kind of look. That, or maybe it’s just that he looks bigger than the rest of us.
This final story of the collection is in itself suspenseful and psychologically astute. It also sums up the collection as a whole: how do we react when confronted with the unexpected? With danger? When we don’t have a lot of information and need to trust our instincts? I read this just after the Boston Marathon bombing, but it’ll apply to the next mass casualty situation as well, whether it’s a tornado or a gas leak or violence. Some people grow into leadership. Even when the zombies are out to get you. Dang, I love what this guy does with zombies.
What if I were to confess that I loved my mother dearly but that I am happy the rest of them are gone, eaten, disposed of? Noah, Josephine, William, Richard, Sarah, Rebecca, and Ruth? Even Father?
What then? Am I a bad son? A bad brother? A bad person, if I tell you that I liked that it was just Mother and me and no one else? Does that make me a monster, too?
Any story can be told in many ways. One of the most obvious choices a writer makes is to decide who’s telling the story; who is the Point of View character? Here, Gonzales makes an interesting choice. When a man is bitten by a wolf and turns into a werewolf, we don’t hear about what it’s like for him. We don’t even hear about what it’s like for his wife. We hear, instead, what it’s like for his son. Turns out, even a werewolf story can have a great deal of psychological complexity.
I did not build a cage for my father. Nor did I knock him unconscious, secure him, with a rope and tape, to the kitchen table in order to slice him open, figure him out.
I did not drag him by chains from town to town, calling out, “Come, see the eighth natural wonder! Come, look upon the horror that is my father, the Wolfman!”
I did not charge for admission, did not benefit by his capture in any way whatsoever.
What I mean to say is: I was not cruel. Not at first.
Dang, I love what he does with werewolves, too.
“One-Horned & Wild-Eyed” (available online at IO9)
After he first told me it was a unicorn, and after I got over the initial shock of the thing, and when I was still just playing along, I asked him, “Does it have a name?” ignoring for the moment the unreality of the thing he was showing me, or, rather, the unreality of his belief in it.
We all have to ignore the unreality of something. Might as well be a unicorn.
Weirdness Not Otherwise Specified
In a recent interview with Book People Blog, Gonzales discussed his use of the bizarre in his stories:
“When it comes to the fantastic or science-fiction elements, what compels me about them is the idea that you can introduce something fantastic or horrific—like a unicorn or a zombie—to a story and then play around with expectations and actions and reactions. These set-pieces are there to act as a catalyst, to stir things up in these characters’ lives, but not generally in an expected way. The unicorn in the unicorn story isn’t typical, doesn’t bring a goodness or purity to the world it inhabits, but causes rifts and strife. I always feel that the fantastic, when introduced into real life, will complicate life, not make life better, and I think it’s fun to play with those complications, and speculate on how characters will react to them.”
But he doesn’t need zombies or unicorns. He can create weird with anything.
“Pilot, Copilot, Writer” (excerpt available at Poets & Writers)
We had become a fixture of the Dallas skyline, no different or more exciting than the neon Mobile Pegasus.
People will get used to anything if they see it long enough.
As the lead story in the collection, this snared me in right away with the bizarre premise of a plane hijacked not to go somewhere, but to circle the airport for twenty years. The story kept me, however, with its depth of exploration of how such an event might affect people. I don’t think the reactions are specific to the extraordinary situation here, but rather might occur, at some level, in any context in which a group of strangers discovers they will be spending more time together than planned. Maybe it’s universal, considering we’re all pretty much stuck here together on this planet. And what of the boy born to one of the passengers on the plane, a child of the sky? Was it by chance the Pilot chose him to be his successor? How does the social structure mutate over time? What do they see as the eventual outcome? As resistant as Gonzales was, in his 2005 One Story Q&A when the story was first published, to characterize this as a fable or allegory, I find that impulse to be irresistible. I will agree, however, that the practical matters added a (forgive me) grounding touch.
“The Miniature Wife”
The truth of the matter is: I have managed to make my wife very, very small.
This was done unintentionally. This was an accident.
Many of the stories here feature a restrained, calm voice, but it’s in this story I think Gonzales best uses that restraint as a painter uses brush strokes to indicate movement or stasis. The calm initially felt rather dismissive towards the wife (“she doesn’t have a job to speak of” nor her own friends; miniaturized indeed. Hey, whaddya know, this is feminist fiction). But as the situation escalates, it sounds more forced, until it seems to mask hysteria, resignation, triumph. But that could just be my reaction. And again, the choice of the point-of-view character is amazing. We don’t hear anything from the, ahem, little woman, only from him. That can’t be an accident, now can it?
My wife is stronger than I am. I am ready to admit that now.
You are stronger than me.
I haven’t slept in three days.
Can you see the white flag, dear? Am I waving it high enough for you?
And we all know what happens when a woman proves herself to be stronger than a man.
“The Sounds of Early Morning”
My, I’m jumpy, she said.
She said this thinking she should at least be able to hear her own voice inside her head.
Anxious, she said.
Anxious, she said again.
Anxious, she said. And again. Louder. And louder. Straining her throat. Yelling, screaming.
She closed her eyes and cupped her hands over her ears as if she were in a concert hall and yelled as loud as she possibly could. Try to imagine what her voice, so loud, might sound like.
She opened her eyes then, and, seeing what was left now of her husband’s face, she let out a small gasp and then covered her mouth, afraid even the softest sound might ruin him beyond repair.
I’m always relieved, when I have an overwhelmingly positive reaction to a book, to find a few negatives. It shows I’m not deluded. This one went by me. Sound is a destructive force, I get that, but there’s something going on with the husband – home surgery? – and there are looters and kids… The whole idea of sound hurting makes me a little nervous in itself, since it’s along the lines of Ben Marcus’ Flame Alphabet (or maybe I’m just free-associating; Gonzales studied under Ben Marcus when he was working on his MFA at Columbia) in which children’s language becomes toxic to adults. But mostly, I just can’t follow the story.
“Cash to a Killing” (available online at Esquire)
I wish I could say that killing the guy was an accident, and maybe if you were to take the long view of the situation, take into account the events of his life, those of my life, of Roger’s, the arbitrary successes and failures that befell the three of us, or, even further back, befell our parents, grandparents, great grands, back to our oldest ancestors, and determined that it was some accident of fate that he ended up who he was and I ended up who I am, and Roger ended up as Roger, you might say it was an accident, but taking the short view of things, we killed him deliberately and with specific purpose. And despite Roger’s argument, just because we killed the wrong guy doesn’t change, for me, the fact of the matter: he was the guy we intended to kill, we killed him, end of story.
If you feared Gonzales could only write in a restrained, formal voice, this story will ease your mind. But I don’t think it’s one of the strongest stories; it’s almost an extended Abbot & Costello routine.
“The Animal House” (available online at Five Chapters)
You could say, too, that over time I became attached to these animals. Not to all of them, but to enough of them that on occasion I had to stop myself from giving a certain squirrel or a certain pigeon a name, and that on other occasions, unable to stop myself from naming a raccoon, say, I had to stop from speaking that name aloud, from trying to scratch it behind its ears, had to stop myself from thinking of them as pets or friends.
Like “Escape from the Mall,” this story deals with the ways in which we change under certain circumstances, like when your town is clearing out and you’re at loose ends so you end up squatting in an abandoned house with this girl who’s really into animals. Again, not one of my favorites, but the last scene is powerful.
“Life on Capra II”
I think about hoisting him up out of the muck and throwing him over my shoulder and pushing him back to the convoy, if only to have some good story to tell Becky once we get back to the barracks, maybe make like he wasn’t killed with the first shot, that he was barely breathing but that I wouldn’t leave my good friend Ricky behind, and that he expended his last breath to tell me to keep going, to never give up, that I would someday find true love in the sympathetic heart of a beautiful woman. But then I figure I don’t actually have to go through all the trouble of carrying Ricky’s deadweight body to be able to tell the same story, so I leave him where he is and start beating a hasty retreat.
That’s one of the first lessons any new cadet learns here on Capra II: Simplify your life.
The best part of the story is the gradual (or, if you’re sharper than me, not so gradual) realization of what’s going on (or what I think is going on), so I won’t spoil it. Becky, who never appears, but is nonetheless a cool character. I got the sense I got a whiff of Heinlein’s Venus fiction (maybe “Logic of Empire” without the slavery angle) and Stephen O’Connor’s “Ziggurat.”
Manuel Gonzales is himself an interesting character. He owned a pie company before heading off to Columbia to get his MFA. In his One Story Q&A that accompanied publication of “Pilot, Copilot, Author,” he tells a story about going through the airport on the way to a pie-baking contest and worrying they’d take away his favorite whisk. You gotta love a guy with a favorite whisk. While he’s a little puzzled at the curiosity it generates, he credits his pie baking with getting him in to Columbia’s MFA program.
And, in case I didn’t mention it, he writes great stories.
But I’m not done yet. I can pull myself up. I can pull myself to my feet and run and run harder and faster than I’ve ever run before. I can make it to those stores and burst through them and into the parking lot and find my car. I can outrun those bastards and start this all over. I will watch less television. I will spend more time outside. I will foster stray animals and donate to charity walk-a-thons and look both ways at intersections. I will call my sister and apologize for what I said to her on her wedding day. I will let love into my heart. I can survive this. I can run and my life will be different and I will not look back.
— from “Escape From the Mall”