Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Kevin Wilson, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth

Tunneling to the Center of the Earth is Kevin Wilson’s first book. The eleven stories were originally published in such places as Ploughshares, The Cincinnati Review, The Carolina Quarterly, and The Greensboro Review. Two of them—“The Choir Director’s Story” and the title story—were chosen for New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best in 2005 and 2006. The book received decent reviews in The New York Times and The Boston Globe, comparing Wilson’s quirky little stories to those of George Saunders and Steven Millhauser.

I enjoyed Wilson’s stories, especially the first one entitled “Grand Stand-In.” One of the most intriguing and socially significant stories in the book, it plays the “what-if” game of imagining what it would be like if in our modern displaced society without extended families, there existed an organization that “rented” out grandparents to families who had lost them. The narrator of the story, a “grandmother” who works for a Nuclear Family Supplemental Provider, admits that although such a concept is incredibly, undeniably weird (as is true of most of Wilson’s stories), once you accept the concept, it begins to make some bizarre kind of sense.

With the exception of two more realistic stories, “Mortal Combat” and “Go, Fight, Win,” most of the stories are based on “what if” social or conceptual premises, primarily about nonexistent and unusual jobs. One works in a Scrabble factory, searching for Q’s. Another is the curator of a museum that houses things that are ordinarily junk, but which have been transformed into something interesting and valuable simply because someone collected them, such as jars of toenail clippings. Another advises businesses on such possibilities as how many people would be killed if a disgruntled worker came back to take revenge on his former coworkers or how many people would die if a bus got stuck in a freak blizzard during rush-hour traffic.

Steven Millhauser's short fictions are, like Wilson’s, "suppose" stories. Suppose someone built the ultimate shopping mall? Suppose adolescent female mystery was really caused by witches? Suppose there was an amusement park that opened the door to an alternate reality. Suppose you took an ordinary entertainment, illusion, or metaphor and pushed it as far as it would go." One could say that all of Millhauser's stories go "too far," that is, if the intensive "too far" existed in his vocabulary. While most short-story writers in the last two decades joined the realist rebellion against the fabulism of the seventies, Steven Millhauser has stayed true to the fantastic tradition that extends from Scherazade to Poe and from Kafka to Borges, playfully exploring the freedom of the imagination to reject the ordinary world of the mundane and explore the incredible world of purely aesthetic creation.

His favorite personae are the impresario, the maestro, the necromancer, the wizard, Prospero on his island, Edison in his laboratory, Barnum in his circus ring. Whether his stories focus on magic carpets, men who marry frogs, automatons, balloon flights, or labyrinths that lie beneath everyday reality, Millhauser embodies one of the most powerful traditions of short fiction--the magical story of the reality of artifice. Millhauser is our most brilliant practicing romantic, for whom surface reality is merely an uninteresting illusion and ultimate reality is always sleight of hand

When George Saunder's first collection of stories, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline appeared in 1996, it received rave reviews, with well-known writers such as Garrison Keillor and Thomas Pynchon calling Saunders a "brilliant new satirist" with a voice "astoundingly tuned." Based on that one book, Saunders was a finalist for the 1996 PEN/Hemingway Award, and New Yorker magazine named him one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty. The reviewers of Saunders' first two collections have called him variously "a cool satirist," "a savage satirist," and a "searing satirist." Typical of the satirist's need for an object of attack, Saunders says he always starts off earnestly toward a target; however, he self-deprecatingly notes, "like the hunting dog who trots out to get the pheasant," he usually comes back with "the lower half of a Barbie doll."

In one of my favorite Saunders stories, "Sea Oak." A man works at a male strip club called Joysticks and lives with his aunt, sister, and cousin in a subsidized apartment complex called Sea Oak, where there is no sea and no oak, only a rear view of FedEx. Saunders evokes some funny bits here: the Board of Health who visits the club to make sure the men's penises won't show, a television program of computer simulations of tragedies that never actually occurred but theoretically could. However, the story becomes most absurd when aunt Bernie dies and returns from the grave as a zombie who urges the narrator to show his penis so he can make more money.

The ostensible satiric point of the story is Bernie's expression of the unfulfilled longings of all the losers who die unheralded. However, what the reader most remembers is the grotesque image of Bernie's ears, nose, arms, and legs decaying and falling off. If there is a central thematic line in the story, it occurs when the narrator puts what is left of Bernie's body in a Hefty bag, thinking maybe there are angry dead people everywhere, hiding in rooms and bossing around their scared relatives. The story ends with Bernie's voice in the narrator's dreams crying the anthem perhaps of every pathetic, and somehow sympathetic, loser in Saunders’s collection--"Some People get everything and I got nothing. Why? Why did that happen?"

Although I can see the similarity between Wilson’s stories and those of Millhauser and Saunders, and I did enjoy the clever concepts that Wilson creates, I don’t think he has the imagination of Millhauser or the satiric vision of Saunders.

When Wilson was asked how he balances the real and the strange in his stories and keeps them believable, he says that the trick is that he works hard at embracing the ridiculous nature of the stories without making the concerns of the characters ridiculous. He also suggests that when you present something strange and perhaps impossible, you simply incorporate it into the story without making a big deal about it, thus making it more readily accepted by the reader.

I think those are both helpful suggestions about writing "what if" stories.

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