Winter is a dismal stretch in small Midwestern towns, where the temptation to hibernate can be overwhelming. So, why not just check out for a few of the most trying months and reemerge in the spring? “The Sleep,” the first story in Caitlin Horrocks’s new collection, Life among the Terranauts, starts with this premise and follows through. That the decrepit town is called Bounty, with one old hardware store and a town library in a reconverted pharmacy, adds the necessary grounding in detail. As more and more residents escape from the ravages of winter by sleeping through the cold, the proposition starts to sound like common sense. By the time the television cameras arrive, the rest of the world may be surprised, but we’re not.
What-if stories generally follow one of two paths: start with an absurd premise and push it toward its logical conclusion (what if we could flap our arms and fly? Better work on traffic control). Or, begin with an ordinary premise and push it toward absurdity (people are spending ever more time on their cell phones; what happens when it becomes 24/7?). Horrocks is adept at both forms of extrapolation. In the title story “Life among the Terranauts,” a group of misfits survive in a biodome for a substantial reward if they last seven hundred and thirty days. But shortages grow, and subsistence becomes a matter of liking beets and sorghum. As the narrator notes: “Our towels have been depleted by the Great Kitchen Fire and the Regrettable Fertilizer Spill.” If this line sounds like an excerpt from a George Saunders story, that’s due to a similar sense of hurt laced with irony. The rewards in life are doled out unequally.
What make these stories more than flights of fancy is the weight of their characters and settings, as if Garrison Keillor took his Lake Wobegon creations a bit more seriously. In “Norwegian for Troll,” the lonely protagonist Annika is visited by two distant relatives from Norway, who may or may not have anything to do with the story’s hopeful ending. It’s a tale from the “is it or isn’t it” school of fiction, a version of slipstream that authors like Kelly Link made famous. But what sticks in the mind is how the sturdy Annika lives, enduring in a family house with “the rag rug, the strata of linoleum, the family photos, and the ceramic trolls.” The story “Better Not Tell You Now” takes to horrifying lengths the old game of plucking a daisy to predict the future, a version of the Ouija board that turns from a silly party game to an oracle. Yet the strength of this brief narrative stems from the deftly delineated lives of schoolgirls like Callie and Isabel and Zora.
In fact, more than half the stories explore life as we know it—or think we do. “Sun City” traces a grandmother-mother-daughter relationship complicated by a fourth woman. In “23 Months,” a woman meets a man at a party knowing more about his past than she has any right to. One of the longest stories, and perhaps the best show of Horrocks’s versatility, is “Paradise Lodge,” which presents three angles on a vacation in Peru: a tour guide’s, a young couple’s, and a mother’s. The art of capsule summary to capture a life and a sensibility is one of the outstanding features of these stories, as shown with Walt, one half of the doomed young couple on the aforementioned trip:
Walt’s original plan had been several weeks of scrappy solo adventures before his study-abroad program started in Lima. He’d wanted a chance to test his courage, his Spanish, to see whether and how well he could convince people that he truly belonged. There weren’t many international adoptions out of Peru even today, much less when he’d been adopted; someone at his parents’ church had gone to college with someone who managed an NGO in Lima, and somehow he’d ended up in western Michigan. The picture books his parents read to him—God Found Us You; I Don’t Have Your Eyes; I Like Myself!—always claimed happy endings all around. But even as a child, he’d felt the displacement, the misdirection of an author urging his attention toward the grassy lawn and the fridge full of milk and Coca-Cola, away from wherever he’d come from, whoever had once cared for him. Like a magician performing a card trick, his parents waved their love in front of him, trying to make it all he could see. It was a sincere love, fierce and depthless as any parents’. But it didn’t make him look any more like the other kids in town, the strapping blond descendants of Dutch immigrants. The high-school marching band, where Walt and Lizzie had trooped beside each other in the clarinet section, performed in wooden shoes.
The details seem both accurate and incisive, so knowing, that it’s as if Horrocks had access to several dossiers and also acted as a psychotherapist to her characters. The tiresome creative writing workshop adage “Write about what you know” should really have a coda: “—or learn.”
Other stories, other lives. “Teacher” is told by a teacher whose former student has thrown a brick from a bridge onto a highway, causing all the damage you fear. It’s a meditation on what can’t be undone but what might have never happened, had one but known. If only. “Chance Me” is about a boy visiting his estranged father ostensibly to tour colleges in the Boston area. The boy seems oddly disaffected, out of his depth at a Harvard school tour, as the father thinks about the decision to leave his wife and son in a small Midwestern town so many years ago.
This is the realm that Horrocks explored in her first short story collection over a decade ago, This Is Not Your City. That first book presented the textures of eleven different lives: a girl who’s never forgiven herself for how she treated her best friend who came down with cancer; a chance meet-up on a bus headed to Estonia that ends not badly but sadly, mainly because life is like that; a couple who seem innocent enough but who steal dogs; a man who escapes his family to live in Prague. The last story in that collection, “In the Gulf of Aden, Past the Cape of Guardafui,” describes a couple of mythomaniacs on board a cruise, who boast about their prodigy son. But what their fabric of lies covers and why is only part of the unfolding plot.
Horrocks has a penchant for setting her fiction in Scandinavia or else in what used to be called the Baltic States. The title story, “This Is Not Your City,” follows a Russian woman living unhappily in Finland. Horrocks’s characters are often displaced people or those who have suffered a metaphoric form of displacement or loss. It’s worth noting that in many of the stories, the father is either absent or on the cusp of departing, leaving a void like a wound not quite healed.
Not that Horrocks is earnest or solemn. “Zero Conditional” in Life among the Terranauts is a dark comedy about a young woman teaching at a self-proclaimed Montessori school with no qualifications (neither her nor the school). “The Untranslatables” has linguistic brio enough for three stories, a fascination with words reminiscent of the stories in Eley Williams’s Attrib. and Other Stories. An example: yoko meshi, a Japanese phrase that means eating a bowl of rice sideways, i.e. an awkward situation. It’s not a bad description for some of Horrocks’s zanier pieces.
Unless Horrocks happens to be thirty or more different people, her stories are the bravura feat of a ventriloquist, which is what any good author should be, unless their work is restricted to a form of autobiography. (Many first novels tread the territory of the self, which is why a fair number of novelists’ second books are duds—that, and the fact that an initial success allows the writer to excavate an old draft from a half-forgotten computer file and publish it, meaning that the second novel was really the one written first.) Horrocks’s 2020 debut novel, The Vexations, is as far from autobiography as possible, imagining the life and family of someone of another sex, a different culture, and an earlier era. Loosely following the life of the French composer Erik Satie, the plotline traces the Satie family after the death of the mother, from the provincial life in Le Havre to the art world of Paris in the early 1900s. Precise in its period detail, it recreates everything: the taste and appearance of farmhouse butter; the autumn trees in the Place du Tertre. This kind of performance requires a great deal of research, and too many authors can’t resist shoe-horning in all the data they’ve painstakingly collected. In The Vexations, it’s apparent only if one stands away from the creation and deduces what went into it. As for what the patterns signify, this is darker territory. As Erik’s sister, Louise, muses, “One of the great lies of tragedy is that it means more than comedy, when its greatest lie is that it means anything at all.” Horrocks isn’t after tragedy or comedy, though she’s adept at both. She’s intent on the project that so plagued the modernists: how to present life itself.
Over the course of her career, Horrocks has had stories and essays in The Best American Short Stories, the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and many other places. A lot of her nonfiction pieces are simply columns on the writer’s craft, but every once in a while she reveals an eye for incongruity that surely must aid in the creation of fiction. In an essay entitled “Live Demonstrations of Love,” she describes getting married not in a church but in the dinosaur wing of a science center in Seattle: “The dinosaur sounds weren’t muted for the ceremony, so our declarations of love were interrupted by pterodactyl shrieks.”
But balancing such observations is a more somber look—at how the years weigh upon people, and the lengthening distance of the past. In the essay “You’re the kids who robbed us,” about the aftermath of a break-in, her husband wonders whether he should delete the thieves’ uploaded videos found on a recovered PlayStation, their own recordings obliterated. Horrocks writes: “I tell him to try to put back whatever used to be there.”
That’s what Caitlin Horrocks does.