Every good story is rooted in conflict, and most of us learned the different types of conflict in our high school literature classes like clockwork, year in and year out: man v. man, man v. self, man v. society, man v. nature. To learn that last type, probably lots of us had to read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat.” And there might have been shock and disbelief on first seeing the ambivalence of nature when the snow fell on the man’s fire, when the boat didn’t reach the shore. But then American Literature moved on, and we were comforted by the riches of Gatsby and the wonder and rage of Scout so that we forgot, for a time, Crane and London.
This week, Diane Cook released her first short story collection, Man V. Nature, from HarperCollins, and with these stories, we are asked to return again to that harsh world of naturalism. As we deplete our own natural resources and global warming brings us harsher storms and rising oceans, it certainly feels like a fitting time to go back to these imaginative places, if only to mentally brace ourselves for the impact. With Cook as our guide, things will get ugly; we will see our basest selves. Still, from time to time she leaves the thinnest opportunity for survival, and sometimes even camaraderie—a hard-to-see breadcrumb trail back like we learned from Hansel and Gretel.
Terry Kartan from HarperCollins Publishers selected Cook’s title story for Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, a weekly series (available on Tumblr or via email updates) that brings tremendous narrative gifts. In “Man V. Nature,” three middle-aged men meet up for their annual boating trip to a lake in Canada. They run out of gas. They abandon their unmoving “pleasure craft” for their lifeboat. They lose one oar. Two. They drift and wonder at the world that does not rescue them. In his introduction to the story, Kartan describes her joy on first reading Cook’s manuscript: “The distinctive vision that informs the book was fresh and unlike anything I’d seen. How exciting to discover an original and unexpected take on human nature and the world!”
Having encountered a few others of Cook’s stories in the wilds of literary journals and magazines thus far, we can further attest to her unique style. In “Marrying Up,” Cook embodies an Aimee Bender-ian voice to tell the story of a woman marrying for protection in a violent, ravaged world that has confined her to her apartment. In “Bounty,” published in the August 2014 issue of Harper’s, Cook gives us a Scrooge-like narrator living in a house perched precariously on the edge of the sea. Have a gander at this stunning opening paragraph:
A dead man twists around one of my Doric columns. I chose these columns for their plainness, their strength. I liked imagining people looking up at my home, its smoky leaded windows reflecting their city back at them, the classical Greek proportions held up by simple, democratic design. Tasteful. No frills. The dead man’s arm trembles oddly in the water, out of rhythm with the rest of his body. It’s most likely dislocated at the shoulder. Perhaps more than dislocated, but I won’t investigate. A brown gull does a number on his eye.
In an interview that went up Wednesday at The Toast, Jane Marie compares Cook’s work to George Saunders, which is certainly a true likeness. Think also of the raw works of Claire Vaye Watkins and Bonnie Jo Campbell. These are the same kinds of stories that will stick with you long after they end.
This week, The Kenyon Review Online featured Tess Gallagher’s “My Gun” in their Weekend Reads. The story, originally published in 1997, nonetheless hits a striking chord of relevancy today, nearly 20 years later. The first person narrator has an odd obsession, fed by the many gun-lovers in her life:
Lately, however, the question of whether or not I should buy my own gun seems to preoccupy me more than whether I should look for a new mate. I ask you, what kind of country is it where a woman finds herself considering a gun for a companion? When my husband was alive, the idea of owning and using a gun never occurred to me. I’m not even sure at this point why I feel myself inching toward the moment I’m actually forking over cash for a little snub-nosed silver something, dropping it into my purse, and walking out of this one particular gun shop I’ve had my eye on, just east of town.
This is a nice time capsule of a story to not only see how Gallagher, sometimes better known for her poetry and her attachment to Raymond Carver, shapes a story, but also to see an earlier singular moment in our nation’s collective fixation with firearms.