Hall of Small Mammals
There are those short stories that are masterfully good at a technical level (Tobias Wolff’s The Night in Question (1996) or pretty much anything from Raymond Carver’s Cathedral (1989), too, maybe ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (2003)), and then there’s the ones that are freakishly accomplished due to weird boundary-pushing aspects (David Foster Wallace’s “Octet,” the underheralded and perfect Scenarios for Lee’s Forgiveness (2005) by John Leary), and then of course there are phenomenal ones based on oddness of set-up (lots of Aimee Bender and George Saunders). But then there are those short stories that are just—I don’t even know. Weird magic. I’m thinking here of most of Kelly Link’s stuff, and absolutely of The Famous Torn and Restored Lit Cigarette Trick (1996) by Elizabeth Gilbert, and damn near everything by Jim Shepard, and if I’m being honest most of my loves are shunted into this catch-all territory simply out of necessity because, of course, there’s only very rarely a single way in which a short story is best, is mindblowing: what other than concatenations are they, ultimately? Not just character or story, and not simply style or method of telling, but all of it.
I bring this up because for an ongoing two months I’ve had Thomas Pierce’s short stories on my mind, specifically “The Real Alan Gass” and “Videos of People Falling Down.” I’d like to claim they’re the best of the stories in Hall of Small Mammals, his phenomenally good debut collection out from Riverhead in January, but best is of course a trick (as I write this, the year-end best-ofs tumble about the web, not one of them perfect). What they are, however, are as stellar a pair of stories as I’ve read in any book this year, and, more importantly, they represent not peaks to the rest of the book’s readerly valleys but are instead near-perfect permutations of what it is Pierce does so well.
Here’s the breakdown: “The Real Alan Gass” is the story of Claire and Walker, the former a physicist at work on the daisy, “a candidate for the smallest particle in the universe, but no one has devised a way to observe or prove the existence of one.” But the actual guts of the story is that Claire has had, since high school, detailed and specific dreams about a man named Alan Gass, a man who, in her dreams, is her husband. The story begins with Claire telling Walker, after a year of living with him, about this strange ongoing dream of hers. And so what does Walker do? He looks the local Alan Gass up in the phone book and goes to his house.
But before that, in the span of half a page, the reader gets the following: “Alan Gass is a ghost, and Walker knows you cannot fight ghosts.” And then: “Planets, hearts, even the parts of our brains responsible for dreams—everything in the universe is made of daisy particles. The daisies come together to form larger particles by interlocking in a chain formation. No one is entirely sure what holds the chains together,” we’re given, and so the story’s very deeply about ingredients: how the tiny, insubstantial bits—subatomic particles, dreams, ghosts—hang together to make reality.
At Alan Gass’s house, Walker explains why he’s there, and Alan—not the Alan Gass, of course—gives Walker a tape player which he suggests Walker use to record messages for Claire, to play beside her while she sleeps, to banish Alan Gass. From there, there’s another Alan Gass, and an experiment that would’ve disproved the existence of the daisy particle fails, and so the story ends with Claire thrilled that the theoretical construct of the world she’s studying is still tenable, with Walker and Claire falling asleep together. Laying out the plot points like this feels admittedly silly—akin to that annoying way someone in love attempts to list all the Great Things about her significant other, as if the parts could ever come close to the whole. They can’t, of course, but the resonant, amazing aspect of “The Real Alan Gass” is how it’s a story about not knowing, not proving: allowing for a couple to stay best together in and through and because of their mysteries, but the breaking or solving of such.
And “Videos of People Falling Down”? Believe this: it’s a story told in snippets a half a page or a page or two, each of which snippet’s got someone falling. The story is one of those multiple-narratives-coming-together but is as deft and smart as any examples of the form I’ve ever seen, in movies or books or wherever. Like the rest of Pierce’s stories, this one’s ultimately about or examining how it is we make do with who and what and where we are: how do we get up where we’ve fallen? Do we fall again? It sounds so gooey and silly to even say that, but, ultimately, Pierce earns more than enough trust to dig into such notions—mostly because the deeper elements in his stories are almost entirely secondary to the infinitely strange settings in which they transpire.
Which is, finally, what’s most devastating and great about Hall of Small Mammals: under cover of weirdness—a TV show that brings extinct animals back to life; a brother awaiting the arrival of his dead brother’s body—the reader is hit again and again with the elemental similarities that unite us, in our oddities and banalities, as we try to figure out How To Be.