A woman, Linda, returns from the hospital with her newborn baby, Beatrice. As she and her husband pull into the driveway, they see a man waiting in their backyard, “skulking behind the maple.” Linda hurries inside the house hugging Beatrice to her chest as her husband tries to scare the man away. “Inside, she watched the man in the yard watch the house. She knew it wouldn’t be long before he got inside. He always did.” And sure enough, after several vigilant, sleepless days and nights, Linda answers her door to sign for a package, sees that the package is not addressed to her, and runs after the mailman to return it—realizing her mistake, she hurries back into her house screaming, only to find that Beatrice is gone. Desperate, she turns to the neighboring women for help, to which they respond that she shouldn’t worry: he always takes the first two or three.
That is the beginning of “Somebody’s Baby,” the third story in Man V. Nature, Diane Cook’s collection of twelve deeply unsettling stories. Cook, who was a radio producer on This American Life for six years, has succeeded in writing one of the most original, unforgettable releases of the year. Each of the twelve stories is unlike any I have read before: masterfully constructed, deftly written, and strange in only the ways that count.
Cook is committed to the uncanny. The worlds of her stories are like our own but unnerving and different, somehow menacing. The strength of each story’s conceit lies in the author’s awareness of our deepest fears and, therefore, desires—the possibilities that frighten and electrify and consume and terrorize and animate us all at once. In that way, Cook has written a collection of ambivalence: Man V. Nature oscillates rapidly between divergent poles of familiarity and strangeness, likeness and difference, comfort and horror, love and hatred. Her stories live in the twilit nether of the neither/nor.
Through it all, a basso continuo rumbles the domestic scaffold around which each tale wraps itself. The tension between social structure and primal desire seems to always approach a breaking point, a level of unsustainability that might explode the book’s binding and singe the hair on the backs of the reader’s fingers. Each of Cook’s characters is an individual in the Foucauldian sense: “the product of a relation of power exercised over bodies.” The question is whether it is civilization, our civility, that has grown too severe, or our animality.
“Moving On,” the first story, modifies our world in a curt, believable way that makes the reader feel acutely all of the feelings that the State, which is mentioned in several stories, seems to reject. “They let me tend to my husband’s burial and settle his affairs,” the narrator begins, and immediately we know that someone or something now has within its jurisdiction the mourning of a widow. She is then placed in a women’s shelter where she begins the brutal process of moving on, an undertaking that she is forced to endure by the Placement Team. Her brief memories of her husband are understated and nonspecific enough to move the reader after only a couple of pages.
I had a picture of us hidden under my mattress. It was one of those pictures couples take when they are alone in a special place, at a moment they want to remember. We smooshed our heads together and my husband held the camera out and snapped the picture. We look distorted, ecstatic. One night, I fell asleep while looking at it; it dropped to the floor, was found at wake-up, and was confiscated. I still can’t believe I was so careless.
“The Way the End of Days Should Be” is the portrait of a selfish man at the end of the world. Some unnamed event has resulted in a massive flood, which leaves the narrator, who had planned for this day, alone in his well-stocked, fortified stilt house. He routinely turns away beggars in boats until one day he decides to take in a drunk named Gary. What follows is an absurd, darkly comic chronicle of the kind of love that we feel even when we refuse to acknowledge its existence. Man V. Nature’s peculiar blend of the stark (a broken, hopeless world), the funny (the businesspeople who hold an impromptu board meeting on the roof of a skyscraper to discuss what, exactly, to do about the horrifying monster that is about to tear them to shreds), and the somehow erotic (Gary, for instance, whom the selfish man often invites into his bed, or the woman who becomes obsessed with a meteorologist), is one of the closer things to Kafkaesque that I have had the good fortune to encounter since that frustrating phrase was coined.
The stories are dream-like in several ways. They are possessed of that specific mixture of definition and shadow, of specificity and anonymity. In a dream, it may make perfect sense for someone whose face is invisible to say, “You should put Aunt Liz in the trash,” and then for you to open the garbage can and find that it is teeming with millions of ants. These stories, too, explore the place between the metaphorical and the literal, along with the subterranean eros that exists there. “It’s Coming,” the title of the story about the businesspeople, functions in more than one sense of the word “come.” On the one hand, the monster approaches, destroying everything in its path. On the other, two employees seize their final moment as an opportunity to bring each other to orgasm. The reader asks if this is another way of looking at coming: as the inevitable realization of an unharnessable, primitive force of death, la petite mort.
In many of the stories in Man V. Nature, Cook explores femininity with unrelenting scrutiny. “Girl on Girl” concerns a young teenager who finds herself the target of her former friend’s abuse. When she stumbles upon the friend, Marni, on her back in the bathroom demanding that the two snotty members of her entourage stomp on her stomach as hard as they can, both the reader and the narrator are at a loss as to what we are witnessing. “The world is where things feel too hard to explain, and so they stay a secret,” she says, and the reader realizes that each of these stories is born of a hard, hidden secret.
Some of the stories are short and nondescript enough to be fables: “Marrying Up,” for instance, about a woman who marries a large man to protect her from the violence outside, and who bears his similarly massive son; or “Flotsam,” about a single woman who every time she does her laundry finds yet another foreign item of children’s clothing. (The latter story has one of the more extraordinary beginnings I have read: “‘Linda means “beautiful” in Spanish,’ the man in her bed whispers. ‘My name is Lydia,’ she whispers back.”)
Others feel like novellas. “Man V. Nature” concerns three men, lifelong friends, each insufferable in his own way, who embark on a fishing trip and soon run out of gas. Cook’s gaze is unremitting, even as their friendships dissolve and their less civil urges begin to consume them. “Meteorologist Dave Santana” is about Janet, an expertly drawn person who will remind the reader of at least one friend or colleague. She is almost sociopathic in her aversion to long-term relationships, preferring instead to obsessively masturbate over the televised weather forecasts of a meteorologist who is “classically unattractive—short and balding, his light-colored skin and hair hardly distinguishable from one another, and his eyebrows almost nonexistent.” Yet something about Janet’s story rings true, and deeply so. Man V. Nature delivers again and again that feeling that readers seek out, the feeling that the story is speaking a truth, something you have experienced before but have never been able to put into words. And “Meteorologist Dave Santana” contains a wonderful new word: “The mulch around the front windows of Dave’s town house was oversprinklered.”
I have spent the last few days telling everyone I know about this book. It is easy to be a missionary for Man V. Nature. The stories lend themselves to quick, startling previews. But these summaries miss the real power of Cook’s fiction. It is always profoundly startling, but without being scary in a shallow way. It is alarming in the way the visions and pictures that come to us when we sleep are alarming—they mean something more, something unknowable and yet essential, just beyond our grasp. Cook’s fiction is moving in a way that testifies to her deep familiarity with the human experience. And it is never, for lack of a better word, oversprinklered.