June 2012

Sessily Watt


No Animals We Could Name by Ted Sanders

No Animals We Could Name, Ted Sanders's debut collection and 2011 winner of the Bakeless Prize for Fiction, wallows in the momentary. Seconds and minutes are extended over multiple pages, as in "Deer in Road," in which every aspect of a car accident from takeoff to impact is detailed in beautifully crafted sentences. Or the moment is obsessed over, as in the fittingly titled "Momentary," in which a narrator in a clinic ruminates on the seconds of self-violence that brought him there. Even in stories composed of scenes with regularly appearing dialogue -- a standard passage of time for the contemporary short story -- the moment is still isolated. The history of these characters is no more than hinted at and the future is uncertain. All that is left is the moment, carefully cut from the surrounding rock and polished to a shine.

In these polished moments, which take the form of twelve stories, the surreal jostles with the realistic. A man named Peter Lumley assembles a flying machine and then an undulating machine and then another Peter Lumley ("Assembly"), while in another story a man and woman watch television and drink orange juice ("Opinion of Person"). Even within stories, realism comes with a hint of the surreal. In "Putting the Lizard to Sleep," for example, the narrator faces the mundane experience of explaining a pet's death to a young child. But when a mix-up at the veterinarian's office means there is no body to bury, the narrator decides to fake the body. A disconnect opens between what feels like the truth -- the weight in this box is a lizard's body -- and what he knows to be true. The strangeness it creates makes death, normally just outside our perception, more present in the story. This is one of the strengths of the surreal in general: it can break us out of our taken-for-granted narratives and demonstrate the strangeness of life. Sanders does so more directly in "The Lion," where an unexplained grief is made physical by a living, breathing lion made of sheets, with rocks in its paws and chicken bones for teeth. Though never discussed by the couple in the story, the lion's presence emphasizes the strangeness of a world from which their daughter is absent.

Just as this absence is communicated through hints and repetitions, and the cause of that absence is never explained, so too are the paths that led to these twelve polished moments left undefined. Whether first person or third, these narrators keep their mouths closed. In "Airbag," the tensions between the narrator and his former lover, Triti, are felt, and their past is outlined -- the narrator was married to someone else, presumably while he and Triti were together -- but the details are unstated. In "Opinion of Person," Julie and Shad sit in front of the television in what seems to be an apartment Shad shares with Ed, Julie's boyfriend, but the outlines of those relationships are blurry. This reticence allows for the physical moment of each story to be depicted in sharp detail, but it also traps the characters. Without a past, how can they find a future? How can we imagine a possible resolution to an unexplained tension? For these characters, change and epiphany seems forever out of reach.

Grace, then, comes not from resolution, or from a release from tension, but from a shift in perspective. "Flounder," for example, switches between a man being taught how to fish and the flounder on the sea floor he will shortly hook and pull to the surface. Fish and man are caught up in their own tensions, and have little awareness of the other, but are drawn together both by the fishing line and the words of the story. The highlight of the collection, "Obit," enacts a similar magic. A 2010 PEN/O'Henry Prize winner, "Obit" begins as a narrow column of text in the center of the page. It moves in a series of paragraphs from one member of a family to the next. As the story continues, the one column expands to two parallel columns, each with its own paragraphs and family members. The columns shift and encroach on each other, just as the family members interact with each other, with the house they live in or once lived in, and the tree out front. Their individual moments stretch out to meet the largeness of a life that holds them and the people, places, and things they could never know.

This largeness is sacrificed in the other stories in order to isolate the moment, giving "Orbit" a mountain peak's vista before the descent into deep valleys. While both mountains and valleys offer views with their own particular beauty, the other stories in the collection spend so much time in the valleys of single moments that they verge on claustrophobic. There is beauty to be found there, but you may want to take breaks for air as you go along.

No Animals We Could Name by Ted Sanders
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1555976163
272 pages