Reinvention and apprehension abound in two surreal new short story collections.
In the introduction to her new collection A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, Kat Howard declares her ambition to “hang a skin of myth on the skeleton of the strange.” If you’re inclined to overlook this phrase as a bit of airy lyricism, don’t. The bone first pokes through the mythical skin in “Translatio Corporis,” in which a young girl’s slow physical decline gives life and dimension to a city of her own creation. By “The Speaking Bone,” a meditation on an imagined island manned by bone-divining oracles, the physical structure and its mythic overlay are indistinguishable. Like the protagonist of another strange short story, Ray Bradbury’s “Skeleton,” Howard is obsessed with the human frame and returns to it again and again.
It’s a fitting motif for a writer as preoccupied by the construction of myth as by its content. “When I wrote my versions of these stories,” Howard writes, “I wanted to . . . break them out of the frames they had been displayed in.” The opening story, “A Life in Fictions,” gives the reader a taste of her intention, depicting a woman whose reality is profoundly altered when she becomes a recurring protagonist in her boyfriend’s writings. The fascinating novella “Once, Future,” published here for the first time, sees an English project turn sinister when college students find themselves helplessly reenacting the fall of King Arthur. (Fans of the short form may wonder if the knowing “Professor Link” heading the experiment is really veteran slipstream writer Kelly Link.) And “Returned,” which is more contemporary thriller than ancient epic, throws a wrench into the Eurydice myth by asking whether our heroine really wanted to be resurrected.
Howard’s myths are independent sallies, some mutually exclusive, not all effective. Her evocation of Catholic imagery sometimes seems as surface-level as a Sacred Heart on the wall of a tattoo parlor. (It’s at its best in “The Calendar of Saints,” which explores doubt by alluding to real hagiography.) Further, her attempts to shatter the frame of myth fail to contend with the fact that such subversion is a common frame in itself. The last story, fittingly titled “Breaking the Frame,” self-consciously describes a gallery of feminist reinterpretation (think Beauty holding the head of the Beast) that would be at home in any college art building. But if Howard’s ringing challenges aren’t always surprising, her more wholehearted investigations may drag you in their wake. The most moving tale in the collection, “All of Our Past Places,” keeps its myth at the edges, using fantastic cartography to explore the history of a longstanding friendship.
If Cathedral speaks for the adolescent rebelling against the prescriptions of its elders, Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds is decidedly grown-up, its wildest surrealism rife with parental anxiety. (The fetching abstraction of its translated title doesn’t quite capture the violent punch of the Spanish Pájaros en la boca, “Birds in the mouth”—a fitting header for a story detailing a father’s struggle to accept a teenaged daughter’s bizarre appetite.) In “Preserves,” a young couple discovers an unusual way to put an unplanned pregnancy on hold. No harm is done to the child, but the success of their trick can’t deliver them from the reeking guilt they feel at having played it. “On the Steppe” hits the opposite end of the adult terror spectrum, dealing with the pain of infertility by taking baby fever to feral extremes. Between these points lie a breathtaking range of misgivings and inadequacies, from a lethal mistake comprehended a heartbeat too late in the nightmarish “Butterflies” to a child’s misunderstanding of a broken marriage in “Santa Claus Sleeps at Our House” to a haunting reverberation of the Pied Piper in “Underground.”
Readers may relate to the hearer of the latter tale, who, abandoned without an ending, squints at the landscape, “searching for some revelatory detail.” Schweblin doesn’t offer that easy solution, preferring to dispense discomfort. Her art lies in setting up a problem and letting the reader sit with it. “The Size of Things” gets to the bitter heart of onlooker helplessness, and the title story is a particular highlight, asking (but not quite settling) the question of how far parental love can go.