Featuring stories published in Tin House, Harper’s, and Granta (among others), Diane Cook’s debut collection MAN V. NATURE swings violently and pleasurably from domestic heartbreak, to apocalyptic suburbia, to men trapped on a boat just trying to talk honestly about sex. The stories create familiar realities where something unusual, perhaps terrifying, is often lurking between the lines. This is realist fiction, except there’s something — a host of darker urges — nipping at the outline of the every page. This book was awesome and a welcome breath of darkness on this crisp autumn morning.
In my favorite story of the collection, “Girl on Girl,” we’re led to believe a certain sexual awakening will take place shortly following an awkward high school dance, and it does, to a degree, but not without completely swerving our expectations about what really goes on in this particular friendship between two young women. There’s something much more troubling going on between these women, although the word is never uttered, never spoke aloud in the story or written in the text: you just know it’s there. The stories in this collection cover a dazzling variety of subjects ranging from spousal strife, grieving, lust, sexual betrayal (delightfully so), teenage anxiety, and Fear About the End of the World.
The first story, “Moving On,” called to mind some of George Saunders’ finer work, particularly his story “Escape from Spiderhead.” In Cook’s story, a woman has recently lost her beloved husband and has been taken to some sort of creepy home/institution full of other grieving women who will all live together until they’re “chosen” by some new spouse. It’s as creepy as it sounds, until you start to mourn the protagonist’s husband as much as she is, and then it’s devastating, and you feel that the man who will pick her won’t understand what she’s gone through, what you’ve gone through.
Beyond the smooth, accessible prose, the pleasure in reading MAN V. NATURE lies in the unpredictability of each story, so that, while swimming through the first few pages of each story, we know there’s an invisible hook coming to jerk us out of the water, gutted for the finish. Recommended, as always, at your local favorite indie.