The stories in Mary Hamilton’s very, very short collection are vivid, surreal, experimental, funny, and emotionally devastating.
Mary Hamilton’s stories read like the Facebook pages of people who share your name: noteworthy for their unifying principle but absorbing for their dissimilarity. They are like a narrow crevice between boulders at the base of a mountain: When you pry open the fissure, you access an immense grotto of understanding. They are like a key party: When you reach into the fishbowl and draw one out, you might not be ready for where it takes you.
Not literally, of course. All that stuff might end up sucking.
A fundamental delight of Hamilton’s work is figuring out how to approach it. Impressive, considering that the thirteen stories in We Know What We Are—winner of the Rose Metal Press Short Short Chapbook Contest—collectively span only thirty-five pages.
The author gets more done in those few pages than many writers could in a trilogy of novels. Hamilton’s work is genuinely, refreshingly experimental; it forgoes a polished sheen of innovation in order to take actual stylistic, structural, and cognitive risks. (I can’t quite bring myself to say Hamilton has incredible vision, but only because she works as an optician in Chicago and I hate having my metaphors so neatly teed up.) One story begins:
More Walter always wanted more. Wanted to know how hot felt instead of how it was told. More Wanted to know how deep the river with his own eyes. More What was inside and underneath. More And now, with the sun and More with the alarm and More with the sound and More with the repetition of it and More with the familiarity of it and More with the desire and More the sound of it beating.
The dogged use of one word trips up, bothers, and potentially alienates the reader—but then, that’s the point. When you want something badly, how long can you keep your mind on anything else? Insatiability is made vivid through language.
Another story, about two lovers alone at a lighthouse, reveals important plot points in Morse Code—not to cruelly withhold information, but to reveal the truth that the characters are essentially speaking their own language. They’re flailing for meaningful contact, for aid, and can’t figure out why none is on its way.
Routinely, Hamilton bypasses fiction’s instinctual questions—Why is this happening? How did we get here?—in order to fully swell within the arterial framework of a moment. “Never Ever” is one page long, and its action consists merely of a ribbon being tied on a present, but it gives a sense of a couple’s entire emotional history—and a healthy suspicion about where they’ll end up—through the image of a finger turning purple and then blue in the ribbon’s knot. The story not only works in one page, it needs to work in one page. To know anything more would dilute the effect.
There’s a striking versatility in these stories, some of which offer traditional emotional arcs (an aging, married couple gets mired in routine), others functioning as associative prose poems that are equal parts “Song of Myself” and antagonistic Twitter feed: “I am the weather map. I am the swing in the park. I am blue sky. Yeah, I said blue sky.”
While Hamilton’s images are sometimes surreal—“There is nothing wrong with lanterns under your skin. The way they bump and quiver when you run”—her sentence constructions are consistently so. Paradoxically, her repeated use of fragments opens up these stories: “She crosses her legs. Holds one hand with the other. There is a hole. Where things fall. Things fall in. Hit bottom. Bounce back up.” It becomes a frenetic joy to map the thought chasms she leaps, the dams of logic she dynamites. The language is the collection’s true narrative thread, the thing we invest in over the course of these pages. Hamilton uses raw feeling as a foundation, then builds tangible structures with her sentences:
There is no celebration of sunshine. No praise of blue sky or glory for light. Just gratitude for the rain. Flooding our streets and filling the sewers with fence posts and shoes. Leaves clogging drains and wind breaking trees. There is hope in these things. There is hope in our house washing away.
We Know What We Are casts the body as an instrument of destruction, a connective force, a terrible promise, an embattled cathedral. People are surprised to count themselves as collateral damage in a war against nature (“The trees are assholes”), yet it’s their humanity that actually keeps them from connecting with others. The characters of the title story, passive-aggressive conjoined sisters who play piano on a cruise ship, may exude bravado, but they’re really propelled by hesitation and restlessness, crippling insecurity and the childlike need for connection, though they can only view each other through the telescoping lens of adult cynicism.
Hamilton’s stories are pretty goddamn funny, too. While rummaging through his attic, a man finds a bag with seventeen silver shirt buttons, but wonders, “Was he the type of man who could pull off a shirt with seventeen silver buttons? He wanted to be.” And her titles are labyrinthine gems. Four different stories share the subtitle “An Ode to Bull Shannon,” Night Court’s Frankensteinian bailiff; four others namecheck “Theodore,” which likely is a reference to Malcolm-Jamal Warner’s character on The Cosby Show, as she thanks Warner and the show’s creators in her acknowledgments. I defy you not to marvel at a title like “After a nuclear disaster the only survivors will be me and Theodore and Cockroach.”
If it’s been a while since you delved into the short short form, what will hit you here is how quickly you fall into Mary Hamilton’s world, how deeply her stories take root in your mind, and how fully they reward your attention. Do not approach them with caution—attack them with fervor. You’ll be better for the effort.