Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Universe in Miniature in Miniature: a review


As is usually the case with me, I’m woefully behind on my reading list, but I did want to take a minute today to say a few things about Patrick Somerville’s latest book, a story-cycle-ish collection titled The Universe in Miniature in Miniature.  I say “story-cycle-ish” because despite being a very easy book to pick up and enjoy, it does to some extent defy description and categorization.

There was a lot of hype surrounding the release of this book, and since I’m a little bit of a loner/oddball in the Chicago literary world (because I write mostly science fiction) I was very excited to not only get my hands on something put out by the excellent Featherproof Press, something by Somerville, who got strong recommendations from several other writers I respect, but let’s face it, I was excited to dig into some hometown sci-fi.

Well, I finally finished it after slogging through a very busy few months of post-production on a longer project I’ve been working on and I’m happy to report the book was great in a few key ways.  First of all, and I want to just get this out of the way right off the bat because this is huge: Somerville’s grasp of naturalistic dialogue is of the sort that makes other writers just turn off their computers at night and go to sleep rather than try to compete.  In a book that was, at least on paper, a sort of low-intensity hybrid of Douglas Coupland and Douglas Adams, which flashed from stories smart and poignant (“Easy Love”, “The Wildlife Biologist”), to icily vivid (“No Sun”), to crisp and hurried (“The Cop”), to funny and unhurried (“Hair University”), to conceptual (“The Abacus”), and even to puzzlingly incoherent (“Pangea”), the inconsistency was beaten back by the strength of his dialogue, which I can only describe as jealousy-inducing. 

Just one example of many:

“I don’t want a bunch of flowers that have a special meaning.”
“Ah.”
“They say a red rose is this, a white rose is that.”
“White rose means happy love.”
“Well fuck that.”

At first I thought I might write a little cheat-sheet type guide to the stories I liked the best (“No Sun”, “Easy Love,” “The Wildlife Biologist”, “Hair University”, and “People Like Me”), but the more I thought about that, the more I figured my own personal preference for certain tones and story constructions would intrude.  Which would be inappropriate because there’s really something here for everyone.  There’s flash fiction, long-form narrative, meta-narrative, many different POV characters, vivid, atmospheric stories, insular, claustrophobic stories, conceptual pieces both playing with words and images (some very sharp illustrations grace a couple of the stories, which in a world of sameness is a welcome reprieve), and enough variety of tone and setting that if you can’t find something to like about this book, you just aren’t really trying.

It’s also worth noting that this is a very physically attractive book as well.  I declined the invitation to make the cut-out mobile of the universe suggested by the cover, but the cheeky cleverness of such a thing was underscored by the obvious care with which the book was designed and laid out.  Despite my general dislike for the hacksaw-style uneven pages that it sported, it was clear that no expense was spared to make this the sort of book that people who like books would find their hands just involuntarily gravitating towards if spotted on a desktop or shelf.  Also, having been a child of the late 70’s and early 80’s and a beneficiary/victim of it’s aesthetic, I completely loved the wrap-around wallpaper-like cover art.

The final verdict: A beautifully produced book that unselfconsciously oozes quality, definitely heavier on the “literary” end of literary science fiction, to the point where when you finish it you might find yourself wondering if it’s even supposed to be science fiction, and handled with considerable skill by Somerville.  Worth reading especially to check out the stories I listed above and to see how consistently good science fiction dialogue can and should be.

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