I don’t often review short stories, and that’s mostly because I don’t often read short stories. Especially during this time of year where I live, the days are short and dreary and windy, making for great atmosphere to read a long novel by Elizabeth Gaskell or one of the Bronte sisters. But just as sometimes one hankers for a feast, and other times is just a pit peckish for a small snack, sometimes it’s just the right time for short stories. I’ve had my fill of Araby, Mrs. Dalloway, and The Awakening from my college years—though oddly enough I didn’t get any Kafka or Dostoyevsky assignments, which is a conundrum and a shame in my opinion. But when it comes to picking out contemporary fiction—short stories and novellas in particular—I look for less depressing fare, mostly quirky, magic-realism or almost science-fictional genres.
Kevin Wilson’s collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth includes many such almost-parallel realities that reflect different aspects of our own. The short story which lends its name to the collection, for instance, is about three college graduates who dig a hole in the narrator’s backyard, then start to tunnel and eventually even live underground rather than face the uncertainty of their future adult lives.
The recommended reading age for this collection is varied, but I would probably recommend only adult readers--which seem to be the intended audience anyway. While I skimmed through some stories like Birds in the House for language, and The Dead Sister Handbook: A Guide for Sensitive Boys because the subject matter was little too dark and the writing style a little too convoluted for my taste, I was definitely hooked reading the rest of the collection by the first story, The Great Stand-In.
The Great Stand-In is about an older woman who makes her living “standing in” as someone’s grandmother—whether because the real grandmother was dead or merely deemed “not grandmotherly enough” for the role. The “Stand In” is emotionally distant, priding herself on her ability to disconnect, to juggle several family-clients at a time, on her independence and emotional control. When her so-called grandchildren come to visit her, she prepares by swapping out the photos on the walls and other mementos. It’s an unsettling story, maybe because it stands as a commentary on our society where anything, or at least almost anything, can be bought. It also caused me to think about how I (and the society in which I live) regard the elderly.
Another story I found interesting, if only because it was offbeat, was Blowing Up on the Spot. A young man works at a Scrabble factory, sorting through rooms full of letters for the Q’s, while supporting his mentally unstable brother after their parents spontaneously combusted. He lives over a candy shop, and falls in love with the daughter of the shop owner. He is convinced somehow that he too will spontaneously combust, blow up, as if his parents passed down some genetic anomaly. The story is filled with his varied theories on how it happened, as well as his growing sensation of his life heating up.
A thirty-something woman is the curator of The Museum of Whatnot, mostly collections of mundane objects like spools of thread that were only interesting to those who originally collected them. Her mother nags her to get a life, to leave this job and find a man. Her only friend is an older doctor who comes in every day to look at the spoon collection. This is an interesting story that makes one think about the meaning of everyday objects in our lives, and why sometimes sentimental value is enough to make something priceless. For me, it was also a bit of a precautionary tale about the dangers of hoarding and what other people might do with your stuff when you die. They may will it to a depressing museum where no one understands why you collected pincushions to begin with. This is why I collect books. Everyone understands why you collected books. At least, everyone should understand it.