Cozy domestic lives are routinely unsettled, sometimes violently, in this dystopian set of stories by seasoned experimenter Monson (How We Speak to One Another, 2017, etc.).
The “gnome” of this book’s title is a garden gnome, which intermittently appears here as a symbol of the intersection of weirdness and allegedly “normal” suburbia. In “Believing in the Future With the Torturer’s Apprentice,” a female narrator recalls her husband’s secret life producing torture porn. In “The Reassurances,” a man begins working at the cryogenic facility that’s preserving his girlfriend, who was killed in a car wreck. The glib narrator of “It Is Hard Not To Love the Starvationist’s Assistant” works at an extreme weight-loss facility where amputation is mandatory if goals aren’t met. And in the concluding “Our Song,” a man working on tools to archive and tweak our memories roams around the troubled psyche of a popular singer, attempting to seed her mind with a song idea. Some of the stories’ conceits are high-concept to a fault; one, for instance, takes on the format of a patent document. But the virtue of the best stories is Monson’s capacity to bridge unusual setups with compassionate storytelling. “The Reassurances,” in particular, blends its science-fiction milieu with the narrator’s repeated reckoning with loss, and Monson delivers that feeling with both heart and humor. (The narrator sponsored a stretch of highway in his late girlfriend's name before she died, and he’s now legally bound to tidy it.) Sometimes the mood is openly comic: In “Everyone Looks Better When They’re Under Arrest,” the narrator bemoans a never-arriving stove that would complete his family’s obligation to a reality show: “We are on the pointy end of some long existential stick.” But the atmosphere is generally more muted as Monson contemplates how suffused with loss, fear, and mortality our everyday lives are.
Bemusing SF-tinged fare echoing the tone and spirit of Saunders and Vonnegut.