“There’s a science to certain mysteries,” the narrator of the short story, “The Afterlife of Turtles,” declares. Midway through Lee Conell’s debut short story collection, Subcortical (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), the protagonist’s uncle—a man who loves science fiction and “worries about the state of his soul in a way intense enough to allow him to receive money from the state”—is missing. His absence forces her to question destiny, heaven, hell, mental illness, and belief, itself. This wrestling with belief, the give-and-take between the impossible and the possible, the desperately wished-for dream and stark reality, pervades the collection. Characters’ desire for transformation, the return of the dead, the ability to traverse social class or afford a college education, is deeply felt and deeply real, even as Conell situates many of her stories among ghosts, phantasms, and science fiction. Subcortical urges the reader to take fantasy and fiction seriously, to consider how belief in the supernatural or the unlikely is not only an emotional touch point, but also a potential form of salvation.
Winner of the 2018 Story Prize Spotlight Award and an Independent Publisher Book Award for Short Story Fiction, Subcortical’s stories often feature characters on a moral or psychological precipice, balancing between their past and an uncertain future, when visions of the monstrous or the uncanny drive them to face their guilt and fear. In “What the Blob Said to Me,” a grandmother relives her role in the construction of the atomic bomb among the backdrop of the 1958 film, The Blob. Soon, she associates the creature with her own silent complicity: “an oozing hush of havoc, a mucousy muteness surrounded by the sounds of others, by human screaming.” In “My Four Stomachs,” high school student Carley struggles to cope with her boyfriend’s debilitating mental illness. As Carley attempts to digest her confusion and grief, she recounts their relationship from the perspective of the four chambers of a cow’s stomach: “A place of entrapment, a place of softening. All at once. As if entrapment and softening were synonyms. They’re not synonyms.” Carley uses her encounter with the bizarre—in this case, the digestive tract of a mild-mannered, fistulated cow named Buttercup—to try to comprehend tragedy, puberty, first love and its disappointments.
Even “The Lock Factory,” a story anchored in realism, hints at the mysterious. Awarded the Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Award and named a distinguished story in Best American Short Stories 2017, its protagonist is spellbound by the idea of freedom. She is especially invested in her vision of how her mother’s past co-workers escaped from or succumbed to their Midwestern hometown. Though gripping throughout, it is the present day scenes that most captured my attention, perhaps because of the far reach and pull of the mother-daughter relationship:
With my mother calling after me, I sprinted . . . Until then I’d always imagined an invisible tether linking me to my mother—if I got too far away, I was sure that tether would snap me back to her through some kind of mysterious maternal physics . . . And there, coming after me, was my mother. But not my mother like I knew her. I had never seen her run so fast. I had never seen her move with such strength.
Throughout the collection, Conell never loses touch with the reader; the passion and sense of loss in these stories, their beat and pulse, is never distant. Whether transported to New York or Nashville, the 1940s or the present day, she does not lose sight of what lures and hooks our hearts.
The lyrical control of Conell’s sentences allows her to transition smoothly from grief and bitter anger to sharp, quirky humor reminiscent of the fierce wit of writers like Lucia Berlin and Grace Paley. In fact, Paley’s dictum, “Luckily for art, life is difficult, hard to understand, useless, and mysterious,” seems to apply particularly well. In their attempts to understand pain and love, characters grapple with the mysterious head-on. In “The Rent-Controlled Ghost,” mystery takes the shape of a lonely young boy worried he “might become a ghost in the new apartment” of his renovated complex and subsequently befriending the ghost of a past tenant. In the haunting story, “The Sextrology Woman,” mystery assumes the form of a mold specialist in a relationship with a PhD candidate who disapproves of his career. This career, however, allows him to look at mold “the way some people might gaze up while inside a cathedral, as if serious Mystery were whooshing around a sacred vaulted space.”
Whatever the reader chooses to call it—mystery, magical realism, the glimmer of possibility—there is an overarching theme of the dream of reaching forward and above where you are at the present moment. These stories are brimming with the potential energy of each character, to join “beings that live on the margins, outside of any logical dimension, any successful design,” as the teenage protagonist of “Hart Island” earnestly hopes. After all, in a world in which Elizabeth Taylor is a genetic mutant, perhaps it is also possible to climb to a wealthier and more powerful social class, like the protagonist in “Mutant at the Pierre Hotel” dreams, or to pull a live rabbit from your hat for your former boss, like the narrator instructs in “A Magic Trick for the Recently Unemployed.”
Dreams, hopes, the unreal-made-real and vice versa, weave and tighten these stories together, rewarding the reader with perspectives that captivate and confound, whirl you around and yet fasten you to the solid reality of the human body. A persistent motif that sounds throughout the collection is, as one might suspect, the subcortex, the part of the brain responsible for instinct, memory, pleasure, and fear. Here, one might think of Frank, the protagonist of “A Guide to Sirens,” who fascinates honeymooners with fabricated myths about the island they’re touring. Such a task is both freeing and unsettling for Frank, who remembers his own troubled marriage:
Frank has packed all his memories of her away in what he likes to think of as the cerebral cellar of his brain. He imagines those memories decomposing down to their more basic bits, fusing to other forms: fairy tales, myths, legends, the stuff of tacky tours, the stuff that makes his living, the stuff that allows him to live.
It is this small, memory-laden “cerebral cellar” that Frank credits for his particular construction of the mystical or ineffable. Science and mystery, legend and loss become, to a degree, synonymous, and their gorgeous tangle is simultaneously dangerous, heartbreaking, and life-giving.
Sheila, a grieving college student in the story, “Unit Cell,” likewise places a stress on the importance of the subconscious for emotional survival. Confronted by images of her dead sister, she begins to think that, “instead of trying to keep the memory back, she should allow it to repeat until that higher-order structure emerges.” For Conell, the power of the human mind to provide structure and take it away is absolutely vital in the pursuit of self-knowledge. This dual nature, for instance, allows the narrator of the titular story, “Subcortical,” to begin to process how she was manipulated into taking part in a horrifying gay conversion experiment masquerading as science, as well as to address her own collaboration. Unable to sleep at night, she imagines the patient free and happy, “finally recognizing the person on the other side” of the two-way mirror she watches him from. Conell’s dexterous, smart treatment of these characters, her willingness to reveal their mistakes, flaws, humor, weirdness, and love, occupies a landscape both intimate and surreal, one the reader has “never seen before, a place that exists just beneath the surface of her waking mind.”