Microstories offer glances of the unsettling power dynamics at the heart of every relationship.
In “The First Whiffs of Spring,” the opening story of this experimental collection, the narrator, riding a public bus on her way to a get-together, spots a sign featuring a cartoon cow, lipsticked and bonneted. The image echoes in the human performances of her day: She recalls it at the celebration she attends where she herself is dressed up, in the overdecorated house, and in the helpless baby, “the cause of our celebration,” with “its swollen face, its unseeing eyes.” (If the rest of Scanlan’s stories are anything to go by, that baby is lucky it can’t see much yet.) As a good first story should be, this one is emblematic of Scanlan’s (Aug 9—Fog, 2019) book as a whole: a quick glimpse of a weird world, with the readers as passengers just catching a startling tableau only to find it vanished when we turn to see it closer, leaving us to ponder what it might mean. This lightning-fast vision means that Scanlan jettisons traditional story elements in favor of tone and image, which are almost always disquieting. In “Mother’s Teeth,” a daughter spends the day with her cancer-riddled mother and reflects on their bitter relationship. In the title story, the narrator’s observations of the man next door and his dogs prompt her recollection of her own ill-fated stint as a dog owner. In “Vagrants,” an impoverished couple drives through wealthy neighborhoods; indeed, many of Scanlan’s stories focus on couples floating through often grotesque circumstances, as in “Please,” in which a woman is tormented by her husband’s constipation.
Readers with a high tolerance for ambiguity will find much to admire in these fleeting pieces.