We're living in Kafka's world. Everybody from George Saunders to Terry Bisson has been mining a Kafkaesque seam of alarming strangeness. But what happens when you mix some especially odd story ideas with an almost supernatural sense of dissociation? You get something like The Miniature Wife by Manuel Gonzales, a book which feels as though Kafka fell into a K-hole.
Top image: Emily Raw, via The Miniature Wife on Tumblr.
The 18 stories in Gonzales' book run the gamut of surrealism and oddness. Besides the unicorn story we excerpted recently, there are stories about a zombie, a werewolf, a shrink ray that reduces a man's wife to the size of a doll, and a paralyzed composer who speaks through his ears. There's even a story about a world where the sound of people's voices is harmful to adults, in the vein of Ben Marcus' The Flame Alphabet.
But the thing that really stands out about Miniature Wife is the sense of dissociation that comes out in a lot of these stories, some of which are hilariously comic and some of which deal with super intense emotional stuff. In a lot of these stories, we never really learn much about Gonzales' main characters, and they remain ciphers, tossed along on the waves of inexplicable strangeness.
At one point, in the final story in the book, "Escape from the Mall," the first-person narrator says, "This story has nothing to do with me. I know this, even as I am in the middle of it." In another story, the main character starts to tell his new girlfriend Wendy about his past — and then the story skips over whatever he tells her. In many other stories, too, you sense that Gonzales wants us to know nothing about his protagonists, other than generic signifiers like "husband" or "son." His characters are men without qualities, unremarkable except for the bizarre shit they've found themselves dropped into.
These are stories about people who are helpless in the face of a world of illogic and craziness. Even when Gonzales' characters take action or drive the narrative, they never seem fully in control over events. This sense of absurdity and powerlessness reaches its climax in the story "Life on Capra II," where the main character seems to be fighting robots and swamp monsters on an alien planet but the scene keeps shifting wildly and nothing seems to have any real consequences — as if it's a holographic program gone mad or something.
Gonzales' writing often reflects this sense of impuissance — and the feeling of viewing all of this from a long way off — by loading on the irony and neurosis. Like, his story "All of Me" is from the point of view of a zombie who's trying to live like a normal person, with an office job, with predictably terrible results. And at one point, the narrator says:
Don't assume that I don't understand the difficulty inherent in trying to control what we cannot control or that I haven't considered the difficulties that everyday people face or that I haven't thought about the ways in which I am lucky, luckier than Barbara or Mark or Roger, that I haven't taken into account the fact that we are not really so different, or that I don't see Barbara's difficulties for what they really are or how they compare to my own, that I don't understand how hard it can be to keep our baser selves in check or how much easier it is, ultimately, to go back to the evil we know and understand, the evil we have lived with for so long that it feels an inherent and important part of ourselves that we had no other choice, that we didn't opt for this decision, but that really there were never any other options for us to take. I know about choices and about not having choices and how it feels when it seems you have no other choice.
This comes in the middle of us finding out that the narrator's zombie side has emerged and created a dreadful mess, and the narrator's nattering is meant to sort of pull us back from that horror by filling us with words, so that when we actually see the blood and guts the contrast will be heightened and intensified.
But irony is just one of the many distancing techniques that push us deeper into the zone of dissociation from Gonzales' weird stories. Gonzales is also obsessed with old medical texts and scientific oddities, and at times the book feels like a cabinet of curiosities — a number of the 18 stories in the book are just short little biographies of people who are either scientists or scientific curiosities, and those are each subtitled "A Meritorious Life." That's where we learn about the man who grows up speaking the dead language Ostrogothic , and the Civil War-era brothers who experimented with replacing human organs with vegetable matter. Also, Gonzales sometimes seems happier to write faux journalism that lets him hide behind a reporter's notepad, as in his story about an anthropological hoax about a fake island tribe.
In a few stories, though, Gonzales lets his main characters become obsessed with something or someone — like the zombie story, which is really about being obsessively in love with a coworker who's in a dreadful, abusive relationship. Or the werewolf story, which is about what happens when your father turns evil and you become obsessed with taking revenge on him. Or the unicorn story, in which the main character becomes completely obsessed with his neighbor's new pet unicorn, to the point where his marriage unravels.
Also, some of the stories in this book are genuinely, insanely funny — most notably the gangster story "Cash to a Killing," which is just pure uproarious and violent comedy about what happens when you bury too many bodies in the same place. And at times, when Gonzales' narrator reconnects viscerally with the strangeness and awfulness of everything that's going on — especially in the werewolf story — the horror and misery become powerful and mind-blowing.
Most of the time, though, Gonzales book leaves you feeling at sea — like, out in the middle of the ocean, where odd shapes emerge from the waves all around you but there's no landmarks and thus no orientation at all. Just stinging water that pulls you under, granting you the occasional faceful of blinding sunlight as your head breaks the surface every now and then.