- A Post-Apocalyptic Poetics
www.graywolfpress.org/books/gnome-stories 176 Pages; Print, $16.00
The thirteen short stories in Ander Monson’s latest collection, The Gnome Stories, are about the “after,” what happens once the apocalypse is over. Monson finds plenty of disasters that mar everyday life in America, whether he is trawling the suburban homes, workplaces, refuges, or the metaphorical prisons of his characters. Amid terrorist bombings, bizarre scientific advances, the production of reality television programs, and police brutality, Monson delves into the mechanisms of coping and mourning and finds them wanting. Perhaps he has unloaded too much onto his characters. Death with complications — a man grieves for the girlfriend who turned down his marriage proposal; a mother laments over her daughter, the suicide, and her son, too young to drive but taken by a car accident — is the norm in his world. But the more his characters commiserate, the more they discover there is no real divide between their lives pre- or post-cataclysm. “If you look close enough, the seam,” explains an artist’s assistant, of sorts, about that moment of separation, when one existence is ripped away and replaced with another,
The way we work out memories, what gets stored, starred for later easy retrieval, what gets discarded boarded up … these are abysses with no bottom. Narrative works like this. Our lives work like this. Our lives are not narrative except as synapse makes them so.
If Nietzsche tried to disabuse mortals of the notion that the distinctions they make, particularly through language, are meaningless, then Monson insists on illustrating how and why we hold onto those perceptions. That he also uses a combination of science fiction, urban folklore, and fairy tale to justify his characters’ lives is testimony to the tenacity of human belief. Some of the circumstances here seem to have been pulled from the headlines, like the 2010 gas line explosion in San Bruno, California, in “Believing in the Future with the Torturer’s Apprentice.” In “Everybody Looks Better When They’re Under Arrest,” Monson treats us to the inside scoop of how reality television is made — or not made, crushing the dreams of desperate and self-destructive would-be celebrities. “We love to be anonymous among the crowd pending our new fame when it finally comes and the joy of not being able to leave the house for fear of the paparazzi,” the narrator admits; he speaks in anticipation of that instant when his kitchen is transformed and, along with it, his life and marriage. No situation is too small or outlandish for Monson’s characters to force their sense of linear time on in order to create their personal epic, even if the results are inconsequential. Sometimes they are fatal. Always the rituals or routines that might have once comforted them are revealed as losses — of power, agency, even decency.
“Between people, you see a number of different bonds. They act over great distances. They even — so she posits privately — work across boundaries of the seen world and the unseen one that hides behind us all the time.” This comes from a physicist, who will later cite Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics, in “This Time with Feeling.” Despite her scientific training, she still seeks a way out, or a way around, the boundaries that she knows are as real as the fireworks streaming past her house. It is the seam, or boundary, that drives her thoughts: [End Page 22] “Lucia wished to find her way across the border keeping the living from the dead — if she could find a way to get past it and return she would, she would find out the truth … That border was porous: this much she knew. But how to stretch across the gap she wasn’t sure.” She does not so much resolve to “disappear” as she is trapped obsessing over the painful and violent ways her loved ones have died. A boy injured by the fireworks seeks her help, and she takes him to the emergency room. “People disappeared here all the time,” she remembers as she waits...