Thursday, June 16, 2022

Life Among the Terranauts, Caitlin Horrocks


Life Among the Terranauts, Caitlin Horrocks, Little, Brown, New York, 2021, 256 pages, $15.

Review by Ed Meek

Short story collections can function as writing labs for writers of fiction. They are a medium where writers can experiment with point of view, voice, and subject matter. A writer wonders why some people stay in small towns in the country, so she writes a story from their point of view. Maybe they hibernate in the winter, she thinks and works that into the story. Or she goes on a group tour to Peru and begins thinking about the tour from the point of view of the local tour guide who is leading them around. She imagines what’s going on with the other members of the group. The writer likes untranslatable phrases from other languages and so she constructs a story around a list of phrases she has collected. How about a story that is based on lines from a poem? A story about a group living in a biodome for two years?

In Life Among the Terranauts you’ll find a wide range of stories. Although the subject matter varies, Horrocks knows how to construct a plot, how to characterize the people in her stories, and she has a sense of humor. In “The Sleep,” the narrator answers the question: who lives in those small towns in America that have seen much better days?

“What kind of morons hustle for jobs that don’t even pay for cable television? What kind of people spend twenty years buying beer at the Hop-In and drinking in the quarry, the next thirty drinking at the Pointes, the last sodden ten at the Elks Lodge?

Our kind of people, we thought.”

Horrocks often writes what appears to be a conventional story about ordinary people, but then she will push the boundaries into the surreal. You may find this funny or you may have a hard time sticking with a story in which an entire town hibernates during the winter.

Sometimes the stories just feel like experimental exercises as in “The Untranslatables,” or “And Looked Down One As Far As I Could,” but they are still entertaining. Horrocks is best at long short stories. “Chance Me,” is a story within a story about a son, Justin (he goes by Just), who hasn’t seen his biological father for 16 years. He comes to Boston from Arizona and meets the father under the pretext that he is applying to colleges. The father flashes back to his days in Arizona with Justin’s mother, Willow, and their baby boy, in a utopian community run by the artist Soleri. The father, Harry, couldn’t convince the mother to leave the community so he abandons her and Justin. Now Harry is a real estate broker with a live-in girlfriend. He wants to patch things up with his son.

Wherever else his life might take him, it would not take him back there, to the red desert hills and the bleached sheet of sky snapped open every morning above them, their baby squalling in a hand-painted card-board box. Now that baby was sitting in his Lexus, six feet tall and applying to Harvard.

You can see from that passage that Horrocks can write a good line. And she is adept at assuming the voices of everyone from young men to older women and young kids. She’ll pretty much take on anything. One story is from the point of view of a granddaughter trying to figure out if her grandmother was a lesbian (as she is). Another story is from the point of view of an eight -year-old girl.

There are two great stories in the collection. “Norwegian for Troll,” and “Paradise Lodge.” Both of these stories have credible characters, compelling settings, complex plots. Who doesn’t like a story with trolls in it? The second story is set in Peru and delves into conflicts of identity and family with an adopted Peruvian-American on a trip with his red-headed American girlfriend and a Peruvian tour guide who is trying to make a major decision in his own life. If you can live with the unevenness of the stories, you can enjoy Horrocks’ talents and get a feel for what’s going on in contemporary short fiction today in America.

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