Characters uneasy in their skin make up Brenner’s intriguingly titled but ultimately undeveloped second collection (after the Flannery O’Connor Award winner Large Animals in Everyday Life , 1996).
Inexplicable phenomena in ordinary life prove Brenner’s fascination here, as evidenced by the hobby of the protagonist of the leading story, “The Anomalist,” who methodically collects and publishes accounts of curious happenings ignored by science. As he conscientiously records evidence of stone-swallowing by seals and spontaneous detonations, the Anomalist recognizes that people who look too closely at one object are not seeing other, important objects—in his case, his obsession for listing has kept him from taking sincere notice of his attractive new single-mom assistant, Maggie. In another story, “The Human Side of Instrumental Transcommunication” (originally published in Story), the first-person narrator speaks in the broad, reassuring tones of a public speaker at an annual convention who, bit by bit, reveals the haunting story of the untimely death of his own young son, Nathan, obsessed by “little machines.” “Four Squirrels,” inspired by a newspaper account of rodents entangled by a plastic grocery bag, relates the struggle for freedom in the words of the four sibling animals, as well as the motivations of their savior veterinarian. In these ten ill-assorted pieces, Brenner’s insistence on making connections between the rational and the far-out occasionally veer into obscurity, as in “Are We Almost There,” in which the “I” searches from childhood to young adulthood for a certain “You” who remains teasingly unnamed: Is it the sea? Or the Snoopy dog of her early television-watching memory? Despite Brenner’s attempt to imbue her characters with some weight and background (a coworker who unwittingly becomes involved with a crack addict in “Mr. Meek,” for example), the tales feel maddeningly unfinished, coy in their use of TV one-liners, and on the look for a hasty epiphany.
A stylistically unremarkable collection offering paltry literary nourishment.