Tuesday, March 8, 2011

"The bibliographing Reading Challenge" Challenger Reads Patrick Somerville

Take that Nicole of bibliographing, and that and that! Words and more words. These are what I throw at you in challenge, reading-wise. Of course I'm referring to "the bibliographing reading challenge." Nicole and I are dead set against one another, reading two contemporary authors' latest short story collections. The first, you ask? Well, it's Patrick Somerville and his, "The Universe in Miniature in Miniature."

Honestly, this book is so good I'd say it reads itself if I were one of those people who found reading to be a tedious bore (e.g. the greater multitude of public high school students, perhaps?). But seriously, Patrick Somerville is no longer up-and-coming. The term simply doesn't apply. He's here and now. If he needed anything to cement that fact, "The Universe in Miniature in Miniature" more than does so. It's chock full of the kind of whimsy and humor that is guaranteed to get my approval.


The eponymous (and if you haven't noticed by now, I love that word) story, "The Universe in Miniature in Miniature" does much to live up to its being an eponym (boy, I hope that makes sense). It begins as a tale of three friends, art students so-called, working in the muddy waters of a program whose name reminds me of The School of the Art Institute or Columbia College in Chicago, The School of Surreal Thought and Design (SSTD) (also the school's acronym is one letter off from STD, #obviousobservations #horriblediseasescausedbysex).

[inescapable spoilers forthcoming]
The protagonist, a girl named Rosie, is working diligently on scale models of a father and son's working on a scale model of the universe in miniature -- hence the repetition, the universe in miniature in miniature (which I think is hilarious, also: both the project itself and the name). It's all for the purpose of graduation, which as Rosie puts it, the requirement is this, "All we have to do, to graduate, is complete our final projects. Our projects are whatever we want them to be."

There are quite a few humorous notes to the story, for example the school in question's campus is located beneath Lake Michigan in "East Chicago." It's accessible through a bakery whose proprietor seems just the right mixture of surly and accommodating.

Then for all its humor, it's touchingly sad. It centers on one of Rosie's friends and fellow art students, Lucy, and her final project. Her final project involves observing (via many secretly installed hidden cameras) the degradation of a young man, up and coming in his employ as a lawyer, who was rendered permanently brain damaged after a slip and a fall.

The weird thing is this story and this project don't start off touchingly. One gets the visible picture that Lucy is studying the young man, Ryan Conrad, for exploitative reasons. In part because, as a Rosie who's our first person narrator also, says, "Her project is to observe the wholesale collapse of a family following major trauma." Rosie thinks at the story's beginning that Lucy might be evil. We learn from Rosie, as the story progresses, that Lucy once dated Ryan Conrad. You're sort of asked to relax on certainty of Lucy's evil as time wears on. The opposite is the case with Dylan, Lucy's boyfriend and the third member of the trio, who starts off seeming somewhat benevolent and sheepish, and in general at the mercy of the domineering Lucy.

Slowly, though, Dylan's motivations seem less innocent. He's working on a novel for his final project, a sci-fi piece about scientists who turn earth's water supply into soda pop. It ends up being a ludicrously lucrative expenditure of his time (which is not in itself evil or bad or anything). I wouldn't call Dylan evil or bad, as I don't think the story offers the opportunity to paint with that broad a brush. What it does do is modify our preconceived notions of each character: Dylan begins to seem less honest, Lucy less driven by her final project's nefarious ends. Rosie is caught in the middle of this, totally uncertain of what she should do and who she should be. The triumvirate is a good one, one that changes fluidly, without willfulness.

And that leads to what ultimately happens, which telling you about would be more than I think a review should offer. This is the teacher in me speaking, I think.


The thread that ties all the stories of the collection together is a combination of the randomness of any so-called order, here on earth or up in space, and the way perception is altered by a slightly new viewing angle. These stories repeatedly have within them -- very literally -- the depiction of a random stabbing, which is told through many different perspectives, and is often confused by the fact that in certain cases the victim dies and in certain cases the victim is possibly alive and well. The perpetrator is sometimes regarded as crazy and sometimes as a complete unknown. (All of this depends on the source of the information.)

In the first several versions of this anecdote the story seems to come from or to secondhand sources, a man who is just hearing about it by word of mouth or a mother who is being told by the hospital staff that her son is dead. In that way it reads like a news item or a tragic occurrence that has befallen a friend of the family, a friend of a friend of the family, on and on. Never are we the victim, not until the story comes firsthand from the victim.

Further challenged, Nicole, eh? Feeling the literary challenge heat, as they say?


Well, here, if you're desirous of more. . .

Another interesting idea that floats through a number of stories (at least two) in "TUIMIM" is what Somerville calls, "The Machine of Understanding Other People." It appears first, as a supposed idea Dylan has, in the short story "The Universe in Miniature in Miniature." (We later learn of the possibility that Dylan stole the idea from Lucy, as she claims he did.) We see it again in the -- gasp -- eponymously named "The Machine of Understanding Other People." This latter tale is the kind of story I wish I'd written (but didn't / can't), because it so perfectly encapsulates all those ideas of contemporary pluralism and social equity of modern liberalism, and the realistic challenges of actually understanding someone else from their point of view.

The machine Somerville offers up to his characters and the reader is both the greatest and most destructive invention in the history of mankind. It allows one to feel exactly as the subject they're viewing, done so by aiming a weird wand attached to a helmet that resembles something you'd wear deep-sea diving (like something out of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea").

But you, who wears it, (the two main characters in the story being Tom, an American and a middle-aged, broken-souled alcoholic and Eliza, a Briton and a relatively young, world-weary optimist given to flights of whimsy), are forced to see things through the eyes of the person at whom you point the wand. This, meanwhile, creates all new problems, as it doesn't swing open the gates of solipsism. You're still an occluded consciousness as you bring all your experiences with you to the experience of "understanding" another person. The difference is that you know what that person now feels and has felt throughout life, what's stuck. The baggage. You feel it, too, through your purview.

Tom and Eliza come into massive inheritances, although each one of them is different. The pair was brought together by the chance happening of an outlying eccentric uncle, who was born out of wedlock, the product of Tom's grandfather and Eliza's grandmother's brief affair. The uncle, Herman, went on to accrue some wealth and a very peculiar kind of machine, "of Understanding Other People." His mother, Eliza's grandmother, Beatrice, was some kind of genius and invented it during the second world war, the result of prompting from the British government to produce some kind of new weapon. By his own unstated means, Herman was able to keep tabs on and took an interest in Tom and Eliza, and upon his death, Herman willed away his monetary wealth to Eliza and his machine to Tom. Eliza, as a do-gooding idealist, has plans to create a university of free-thinking and invention at which whimsy and imagination are, above all else, encouraged. It's called Pangea University. It ends up creating quite a stir, worldwide. I will say no more. Read it!

The point is, "The Machine of Understanding Other People" is spell-bindingly layered, layered not only in plot points but in actual written structure -- at times reminiscent of The New Yorker journalism's unusual bends and folds in their articles. Narratives are strategically left behind and then returned to like so much parabola. Other stories of the collection are again referenced, even the murderer who stabs makes a cameo appearance (we get a fuller explanation of what is happening with him and that, also).

It's just all so much good!


But enough, this pugilist of the literary variety needs rest. I have made my literary challenge. It is your move, Nicole!

1 comment:

  1. This latter tale is the kind of story I wish I'd written (but didn't / can't), because it so perfectly encapsulates all those ideas of contemporary pluralism and social equity of modern liberalism, and the realistic challenges of actually understanding someone else from their point of view.

    If I'm feeling especially intelligent tonight or tomorrow, I may devote a whole extra post to this idea, because it's one of the things I found most interesting and appealing about the entire collection. I think nearly all the stories (if not all) build to this, and the way "TMoUOP" caps off the collection so by addressing it so directly is great. Not heavy-handed at all, very well-executed.

    And I can't write at all, but if I could, I would want to write about this too.

    Wonderful post and thanks for the challenge! My response TK in the morning.