Thursday, May 26, 2016

Hall of Small Mammals by Thomas Pierce

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

From time to time, I read something published within the last few years. Call it “cultural literacy,” or making up for not reading much from the 20th Century when I was in high school, or whatever. For a variety of reasons, not least of which is that I love short stories, I have often chosen collections of smaller works over longer ones, although I do occasionally pick full length novels like Open City, which I read earlier this year.

But I do love me some short stories. I think that they are actually harder to write than novels, because everything about them - the setting, the characters - needs to be apparent in a minimum of words and time. One cannot waste words, but must polish a few until they are perfect. I tried writing a few back in high school for assignments, and discovered that, while I was reasonably competent with prose, I was hopelessly bad at fiction. (I’m just not creative enough to have stories in my head, I’m afraid.) 

Hall of Small Mammals was published in 2014, and it is Pierce’s debut collection. Most (although not all) of the stories are connected with animal life in some way. From the opening story, which involves a Discovery Channel style show with a science fiction twist (they clone extinct animals), to the closing story featuring enormous guard dogs which can only be calmed by a secret password, the human animal and the other animals interplay in an intriguing dance of character and relationship.

In general, Pierce’s writing is good, his characters compelling, and his situations emotionally and relationally believable (if not entirely situationally believable).

I’ll mention a few that were particularly good. “Shirley Temple Three” opens the collection. What would you do if your semi-estranged son showed up with a pygmy mammoth in his car, and asked you to care for it for a few weeks until the government stopped looking for it? Well, mammoths aren’t all that happy in the sweltering Southern heat either. An interesting way of approaching the issue of relationships.

I also liked “The Real Alan Gass.” In it, the protagonist’s world is shaken when his wife confesses that she has a parallel marriage with a man named Alan Gass. Except, he doesn’t actually exist (at least in the physical world), and their marriage exists only when she is asleep and dreaming. Oddly, this isn’t a fantasy marriage. She and Alan have an ordinary, mundane life, and do ordinary, mundane things. In fact, much like in on television, the sex is all off stage. Still, the protagonist is disturbed by how vivid and detailed the dreams are, and he sets out to find out if there is a real Alan Gass behind the stories. Perhaps she is having a real affair on him, he muses. So he dives in and finds all the Alan Gasses in the phone book for his local area, then the entire nation. He ends up meeting with a few of them, and sharing the story. The parallel twist, if you will, is that the wife is a grad student in advanced physics, working on a theory of parallel universes and chains and other stuff which is beyond me (and the protagonist.) Perhaps she even chose her field of study because of her hyper-realist dreams, which started when she was in high school. It’s an interesting idea, fantastic, yes, but ultimately illuminating. We who are married or in long term relationships with others (whether friends or otherwise) know deep down that others have an inner world as real as our own. Just like not everything that goes on in my mind is known to or understood by others, they too have their inner lives. This story just makes that more apparent. Claire may have two marriages, but there are a large number of Alan Gasses, each with their own lives and stories, and they can be viewed - as Claire does her particles - as different manifestations of the same thing. (Perhaps Douglas Adams portrayed this best in his Hitchhiker's Guide series: as an infinite string of probabilities, like an endless sausage…) Best line from this story: “The daisy is a candidate for the smallest particle in the universe, but no one has devised a way to observe or prove the existence of one. Doing so would probably require re-creating the conditions of the Big Bang, which everyone seems to agree would be a bad idea.”

Another good story, one generally lauded by critics (I looked up a few reviews after I read the book) is “More Soon.” A man dies unexpectedly overseas, and his brother (who he was not close with) ends up responsible for the body. Except the body never arrives, because the death turns out to have been caused by some bizarre and inexplicable virus, which starts killing anyone who examines it. So the body is shipped around the world, with nobody willing to take it. Finally, it is encased in a sealant, and scanned and reduced to data. The best part about the story is that the brother has to deal with the bureaucracy, who is always delivering shocking and horrifying news, but with the promise of “more soon.” More details, more answers, more...resolution, which naturally, never really comes. Unless you can count a digital file where one can view cross sections of the body. Darkly humorous, and a bit too true to life when it comes to bureaucracy.

One more line was worth quoting. It comes from “Why We Ate Mud,” a tale of a childhood romance that never quite worked for the adults.

“When I was little, we went to church maybe once a month,” she says, “But I prayed every night, and I had this magazine cutout on my wall, and I thought it was a picture of God but I later realized it was just Allen Ginsberg.”

I can’t help it, that line makes me laugh every time I read it.

Hall of Small Mammals is an interesting collection. While not in the pantheon of greats, it is a worthwhile read, and gives an indication that the author has an eye for human personality and relationship drama. I intend to keep an eye on him in the future, and see if he further develops his craft.


Some other reviews:

The best of the short stories I have read since I started blogging are these:

Other favorites from my pre-blog days would be O Henry, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, and Saki.

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