I like science, but I never thought of atoms as sexy until I picked up Michelle Ross’s debut book. In the first story of this collection, a girl learns the shocking truth that the world is made of atoms, that “when you get right down to it, it’s all just studs and holes.” Later on the school bus a boy whispers seductively into the girl’s hair: “Man, what else don’t you know?”
Such sudden moments of transgressive knowledge are the driving force behind much of Ross’s work. Girlhood—with its lessons about sex and desire and identity—is a frequent theme in these twenty-three stories, many of them short flash pieces.
But There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You isn’t just about the female coming-of-age experience. After all, there’s so much grownups too haven’t been told—so much that still remains unknown about how the world works, how to live. One of the delightful aspects of these stories is their completely unpredictable twists and turns.
In “Taxidermy Q&A,” a girl tries to get a job as a dominatrix, fails, gets her foot crushed by a bus on purpose, moves to a hunting town in the Midwest, tracks down a taxidermist whose magazine column speaks to her sad soul, then drinks with the taxidermist’s son until she pukes. In “Rattlesnake Roundup,” adult children meet up to spread their late father’s ashes—by feeding the remains to snakes at a rattlesnake rodeo (a real thing, according to Google) at the whim of their mother, who has brought along a lover decades her junior.
Summarized this way, the stories sound comically far-fetched—especially with all the reptiles and rodents wreaking havoc. Yet Ross’s matter-of-fact realism—the drunk taxidermist’s son belting out the National Anthem in the snow, the gentle blue-gray eyes of the soft-spoken man in the rodeo demonstration pit—makes the strange happenings completely believable.
The day-to-day lives of the protagonists seem lackluster, but these simple characters come to face complex upheavals, both physically and emotionally. The controlling mother is a recurring trope. Ross’s matriarchs are withholding and needy, all-powerful and helpless, gravely ill and tenaciously strong-willed. Their children must choose between finding themselves and giving themselves up for the chance to forge a relationship with this mother, who is capricious, punitive, and demanding—but at times exuberantly fun.
In “If My Mother Was the Final Girl,” the female protagonist gets drunk with her hypochondriac, emotionally-coercive mother, who reveals, “Sometimes I really hate you.”
So I say, “Sometimes I really hate you too.” I can’t feel my lips enough to know whether I’m in grinning as wide as I think. I want this to go on all night. I want us to have it out until we’re kissing each other on the mouth. There is a part of me that knows I probably won’t feel so good about this in the morning, but for now I’m spinning with desire. It’s like I’m all tentacles, a giant squid. Give me, give me, give me.
This liminal space between love and hate is where Ross’s stories come alive. They point to what is unknown, what is unfigureoutable, even in the closest and deepest relationships.
That said, it’s difficult to really pin down what is at the center of this book, because the collection spans such a range. At times it’s a bit scattered. Along with the familial stories, there are rewritings of fairy tales and even modern allegories that don’t seem to fit with the rest of the book, even though they’re compelling stories in their own right.
One such flash piece is called “Pam’s Head,” in which nameless people go about the Sisyphean task of digging gel out of a tunnel until they die, at which point their body parts are dug out by other gel diggers. Reading this story in the current political climate, my mind immediately went to the Trump administration’s efforts to artificially prop up the dying coal industry. Yet the story seemed to be pointing to a larger life lesson: “I guess it’s wrong to say we’re not tunneling toward anything. We’re tunneling toward our deaths, all of us. With each load of gel we transport and deposit, we get closer.”
The rest of Ross’s collection is less nihilistic. But taken altogether, There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You forces us to confront anew the simple things we take as rote, whether it’s a lump of coal, our mother’s graying hair, or the studs and holes of an atom model:
What else you don’t know is this: nothing is solid in the way you formerly understood solid. It is mostly empty space, your teacher says. Everything is mostly empty space. You are mostly empty space.
Who are we, if we mostly don’t exist? Ross presents a more kaleidoscopic vision of our short, mostly mundane lives, forcing us to wonder just how much more they haven’t told us, how many more ways of seeing we have yet to discover.