I can, fortunately or un-, remember exactly when it was I last read a book of stories as compelling and gasp-inducingly fucking gorgeous as Patrick Somerville’s The Universe in Miniature in Miniature: it was four years ago, and it was Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners. There’ve been great collections since then, of course—Blake Butler‘s Scortch Atlas comes instantly to mind, plus every collection ever by Jim Shepard—but it’s been a long, long time since I’ve been this knocked back and shocked by a book.
I started this book on a plane flying from Iowa to Atlanta, and Ellen was beside me, reading her own book, and I had to damn near put my hand over my mouth to keep from constantly, botheringly interrupting her, hitting her with these sentences which were, at 34,000 feet hitting me hard as hell. That, more than anything else, is the Somerville magic, or at least where it’s most clearly manifest: in sentences. Here’s a good sample, drawn entirely at random:
“Lucy says we aren’t watching to see if he will die. ‘That would miss the whole point,’ she says. ‘And besides,’ she says, ‘that would be, like, cruel.’” (“Universe/Miniature/Miniature”)
“I recognized it from the one time I had done it in Grayson, when I’d first come back to the midwest. I’d met an old friend and we’d gone to the playground at the same elementary school we’d attended twenty years before. He had gotten into ATV sales or something. I’d spent a lot of time having fourth-grade memories come into my head, not really knowing whether they were real or whether I was making them up—they’d been too pleasant, in a way, and didn’t fit into my haunted, dark-enchanted-forest sense of childhood. The kind where the trees eat little boys. He’d asked me why I came back, and I said “It was so lonely out there,” which had felt basically true, and then we’d smoked the meth.” (“No Sun”)
“Phil is not much of a researcher, or a reader, or someone who thinks anything through. For him to be preparing is a meaningful development. It’s like a horse reading The Celestine Prophecy.” (“Hair University”)
Look, I could keep going on and on like this—honestly, every page, or, at very least, every third page, featured lines like these—lines which featured a loose, chummy, playful confidence, lines which just fucking shone with good.
It’s worth me at least acknowledging all the ways I’m predisposed to liking this book. First, it’s Somerville, and his The Cradle knocked me sideways two years (or whenever) back. Second, it’s out from Featherproof, and if there’s a more interesting press publishing more gorgeous books—I’m talking all presses now, indie or big guys—I don’t know of it. Third, the book’s not only midwestern, but features one of my all-time favorite tricks of midwest fiction: it’s set in a fictitious town! I admit this may be a moderately silly adoration on my part, but seriously: fictitious midwest towns are where it’s at. Someday somebody smart’ll put together an amazing atlas of fictitious towns (for the record: one of this year’s upcoming devastators is Alan Heathcock’s Volt, which is a powerhorse of a collection as well, and that whole thing? It’s set in Krafton, another fake midwestern town). Anyway, those are three legitimate beefs you could cite regarding my overwhelming enthusiasm for Somerville and Universe/Miniature/Miniature.
But still…you should believe. You should believe how good this book is. Look again at that long passage from the story called “No Sun”—in which, by the way, the sun stops shining (not really: the world stops spinning, but the result’s the same). The genius of Universe is in the decisions at sentence level: that whole paragraph’s just about the moment a character spots some meth on a gas station’s counter, yet look at what you get, look at all you’re being given by this generous, incredible author—not just the ass-kicking fireworky stuff (“didn’t fit into my haunted, dark-enchanted-forest sense of childhood. The kind where the trees eat little boys.”), but the quieter, plainer stuff (“He’d asked me why I came back, and I said “It was so lonely out there,” which had felt basically true, and then we’d smoked the meth.”). Look, here’s a simple quiz: if you’re the sort of reader who just fell sideways over reading Cather/Rye and Holden’s description of his brother’s red hair (right at the start—Holden teeing up at the golf course—go to the shelf, pull it down and read, it’s before page 13), you need to read Universe/Miniature just for the sentences alone, for the associative glory of them. These are sentences propped one after another by someone with a phenomenal sense of how to make a reader comfortable, how to befriend a reader with nothing more than sentence order.
If that’s not your thing, though, you’re still not off the hook. Like gorgeous books? Pick this thing up–and, please, write a letter to Featherproof, let them know how spectacular the actual object is. Like pictures in your book? There’s pictures in here. Like fiction which is attempting to solve or address questions of empathy, aloneness, the boundaries of self, the difficulty of truly connecting and being with and loving another?
See how that snuck up?
It’s easy to flap arms and shout about Somerville’s sentences—they are really, really, really that good. What Somerville’s actually doing in these stories—the things he’s trying to make happen among and to his characters—is orders of magnitude more difficult and gorgeous. Here’s another quiz: in a non-Gardner way, are you interested in moral fiction? That is, fiction which, in some way, attempts to address how it feels to be alive and trying to connect to people and feel honest, decent love, to make do—and, actually, not just fiction which addresses it, but which honestly reckons with the difficulties, the threats, the risks, the attendant harm of all those enterprises?
This sounds lofty. It is. Not for nothing did Wallace couch such questions in futuristic tellings of tennis academies and halfway houses, and Somerville, in his collection, couches such questions in strange quasi-science-y ways. In these stories, the earth stops spinning, there’s a machine for understanding other people, an ox and man are burned on the same pyre. The word and idea of Pangea comes up more times than I kept track of. There are—maybe I’ve said this—some of the best sentences written in a long while.
Look, just read this book. It’s the new year. You’ve got resolutions. I guarantee that, if you’re generous with your definitions and yourself, reading Patrick Somerville’s The Universe in Miniature in Miniature will fulfill at least two of them, maybe more. Read and be amazed. Read and be grateful.