In the new viral age, our comfortable ratios of absence and presence have all come disarranged. Friends who live on the other side of town might as well live on the moon; roommates and children and lovers from whom we could once maintain a healthy distance are never away, and they probably feel the same about us. At the retirement community where my grandmother lives alone, my parents visit by phoning up to her room while standing outside underneath her window. At the grocery store where I work, we have a 45-person cap on the number of customers—which still always seems like too many—and no one can see each other’s faces for all the masks we’re wearing. And above it all, like reapers from some World War I propaganda poster, hover the presences of still greater absence: lost jobs, lost hope, lost lives.
The dynamic between absence and presence has always been one of the motors of fiction. Odysseus is gone, Odysseus returns. Sethe’s baby is dead, Sethe’s baby won’t leave her. The whole idea of resolution in fiction might be thought of as a move from one of these poles to the other. Something that should not be is banished, something that should be nearer is returned. The story concludes when the distances are brought back into their proper arrangement.
But what about a fiction that sets up absence as it’s lodestone, distance as it’s overriding ethos? What about a fiction where absences are not resolved into presences, but in fact just generate more absences? What would that read like? How would these compounding absences, like black holes, deform narrative and deform language itself? And what might all this tell us about the weird times that it’s our lot to live through?
These are the questions that are at the heart of Ander Monson’s recent collection, The Gnome Stories, out from Graywolf back in that February 2020 that might as well be a different epoch by now. And yet, in their subtle deployment of speculative fiction tropes and in the mood of isolation and involution the stories produce, The Gnome Stories are apropos bordering on prophetic.
This quality of the collection is most on display in its finest story, “The Reassurances.” It’s your average man’s-girlfirend-leaves-him-and-then-dies-in-a-car-accident-and-then-is-cryogenically-frozen-type story, and it’s particularly good. The story is complicated by twinned specters: the wildfires in the hills outside Phoenix and the repeated bombings of the exurban dross—payday loans places, fast-casual eateries—inside the city by a terrorist group calling themselves The Small Hand. These elements are never exactly emulsified into the larger narrative. Instead, they remain ghost-like terrors, just beyond the envelope of the narrator’s daily awareness. “We are in your city, they wrote, among you all the time. That wasn’t news, but the news reported it like it was,” the narrator relates, of the Small Hand. And isn’t that just how it is these days: implacable, invisible agents already among us, and a media class that doesn’t know what’s real and what isn’t, all set against a smoky background of ecological disaster.
I mentioned above that some of these stories are based around absences that only generate more absence. This is certainly the case with the collection’s opener, “Weep No More Over This Event.” In it, we find the monologue of a man who has recently killed an intruder in his home, not long after his wife left him. And yet from this we discover an exponentiating chain of losses, of absences: the neighbor’s daughter who disappeared, the intruder himself who has a home and a family. Meanwhile, the narrator takes up the art of cat burglary, turning into the exact unwanted presence that he destroyed at the beginning of the story. Again: if you want to found a fiction based on absence, things are going to get weird.
It wouldn’t be enough for the stories to simply be about absence and distance. This is literature, you know, and form must relate to content. And it so does in The Gnome Stories. All the voices in the stories, whether it’s the tight first persons of “Believing in the Future With the Torturer’s Apprentice” and “The Gnome,” or the barely more distant third persons of “It Is Not Hard to Love the Starvationist’s Assistant” and “Opportunities for Intimacy,” all of them bear the stylistic markers of involution. Few of the stories seem to go anywhere, exactly, and when they do, it’s in sudden leaps of narrative logic, like in “The Golem” when a couple’s planned infidelity produces a monster of language in the arroyo behind their house. The language here must circle in on itself, because for it to approach the black holes of absence that are at the heart of the collection would mean instantiating a presence through language. So instead it spirals, it peregrinates, it worms around and in upon itself, trying to reach an impossible center.
Only one story here seems like a misstep: “In A Structure Simulating an Owl.” Based on a 1931 patent application for a fake owl meant to scare away pest birds, the story gestures toward the same complex of emotion and form that the other stories reach by involving an inventive wife and an absent husband. But with its numbered sections, it’s paragraph-long sentences, and it’s drive toward nonsense, this story becomes all formal surface with little of the deep spiraling effects that we get out of the other stories in this collection.
How does one conclude a review of a book that’s about absences? Wouldn’t that be like trying to tie a neat little bow around a void? Wouldn’t it just collapse? But that’s the real effort, the real courage, that Monson shows in trying to use as blunt an instrument as fiction to write toward the universal emptiness that we all feel at the worst possible moments. In this new viral age, we’re all stuck inside alone; in this new viral age, we all wish everyone would go away. Or, as the narrator of “The Reassurances” puts it: “I’m not from here. Who is?”