Many of the stories in Manuel Gonzales’ impressive debut collection come with killer first lines that reveal all we need to know about their contents. The eponymous tale opens with a humble confession: “The truth of the matter is: I have managed to make my wife very, very small.” Pilot, Copilot, Writer also saves its bombshell for the end of the sentence: “We have been circling the city now at an altitude of between seven thousand and ten thousand feet for, according to our best estimates, around twenty years.” All of Me is the most outlandish of the lot: “The zombie in me would like to make a few things clear.” Gonzales cuts quickly to the chase and entices us into one intriguingly bizarre parallel universe after another.
The stronger stories showcase Gonzales’ fecund imaginative abilities. There are true moments of Kafkaesque absurdity and Borgesian fantasy, but also hints that Gonzales is tracing that long line of Russian surrealists, from Gogol’s madcap antics to Ludmila Petrushevskaya’s bleak little fairy tales. Wakeful dreams darken into living nightmares. Confusion and clarity are equally dangerous. We learn about the rituals of the Sebali tribe, the topography of the “strange planet” of Capra II and a dead language called Ostrogothic.
However, for all Gonzales’ inventiveness, certain stories feel too much like a variation on the same theme. The hunt for “bunker beasts” and alien swamp monsters in Life on Capra II is little more than a video game shoot-’em-up. In the grisly Escape From the Mall, a group of shopper-survivors fight off a marauding horde of evil undead.
But the remaining stories carry this collection triumphantly. Gonzales’ trick is to juxtapose overblown fantastical incidents with real, humdrum existence and human emotion. In one of the best stories, One-Horned & Wild-Eyed, a Texan called Ralph drinks beer, avoids finding a job and squabbles with his wife — and is the proud owner of a unicorn.
Gonzales’ prose is functional rather than beguiling, shorn of stylistic tricks, but his true wizardry lies in his ideas, right down to the smallest detail. Ralph feeds his unicorn fairy dust (that is, “ground-up fairies”). The plane that has been circling around Dallas for 20 years is kept airborne with “perpetual oil.” The scientist who has shrunk his wife attempts to bring her back with his assortment of “engorgement and enlargement solutions.”
In the last story there is a moment when Gonzales’ narrator explains what could be his creator’s credo, how we need “moments when our lives are upended by violent tragedy, monsters, zombies, because without them, how would we meet the men and women of our dreams, how would we make up for the sins of our pasts, how would we show our true natures — brave, caring, strong, intelligent?” True natures are exposed and explored in these pithy, fiendish tales. It pays to suspend disbelief, dive right in and revel in the mayhem.
Malcolm Forbes reviewed this book for The San Francisco Chronicle.