Title: The Universe in Miniature in Miniature
Author: Patrick Somerville
Publisher: Featherproof Books
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction
PP: 307 pages
Looking for a collection of stories that never bores? That always retains its flavor and texture? In his new collection of short stories Patrick Somerville has, with scattered precision, invented a whole new genre. The stories are intertwined in an Escheresque way that allow you to discover them again and again, backwards and forwards, sideways and roundabout. If you are a fan of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Alice Through the Looking Glass, if you enjoy science fiction and love stories, and if you like a little apocalyptic darkness mixed in with your post-millennial philosophy you will fall in love with these stories. If you want to know the answer to: what should you do with a billion dollars? Then read this book.
For example, the opening tale, which gives the collection its name, introduces us to the School of Surreal Thought and Design. SSTD makes an appearance in other stories that do not involve the characters of the first. Similarly, the random stabbing of a young man on the street plays a role in at least three of the stories. Characters, meanwhile, make an appearance in seemingly unrelated stories, serving to provide a common thread. More important, virtually all of the stories are at heart about their characters, characters often broken in one way or another. Those who are damaged often are, as one says, “stuck in time” or, in the words of another, represent “the human mind trapped by itself in a vacuum but there’s a very small window somehow within this empty and airless prison.”
This is Patrick Somerville’s most ambitious book by a mile. The characters and situations here are so delightfully varied. In these stories we encounter a group of college students with bizarre self-designated assignments. A somewhat washed up sci-fi writer and his balding friend. A man in the middle of a nervous breakdown. This book stands in stark contrast with other collections I’ve read recently, where it can feel like the same character is being used in ever story, re-named again and again.
I was also impressed by how comfortably Somerville shifted tone and genre, which came as something as a surprise considering that his earlier books were traditionally literature (with a few shots of oddness here and there). “No Sun”, for example, is a grizzly, stripped down tale of survival in the vein of Justin Cronin’s “The Passage”. The next story, Varra in the Woods, is a straight-up horror story with parental overtones, while “The Wildlife Biologist” is a very honest, naturalistic and probing look at high school lust and middle-age failures.
Combining a light touch of science fiction with greater emphasis on the characters, “The Machine of Understanding Other People” also helps epitomize Somerville’s “genre-busting.” Yet it also reminds us that the work as a whole may be its own machine of understanding other people, one that tends to give insight into not only the empty prison but, more important, the window.
Any fan of genre-bending, compassionate characters and general goofiness should give this book a shot.