Manuel Gonzales has an imagination that’s as expansive and open as a Texas prairie.
The Austin-based writer creates fantastic worlds, often from the raw material of life in very ordinary corners of the Lone Star State — a mall in suburban Houston, for example, or the skies over Dallas.
His first short-story collection, The Miniature Wife and Other Stories is an entertaining romp through all sorts of implausible situations rendered with meticulous pseudo-realism. He tells stories of people with everyday desires caught up in freakishly strange conundrums that involve zombies, werewolves or an animal that might or might not be a unicorn.
Gonzales also concocts a delightfully bizarre ailment of the brain that sounds like something from a book by the neurologist and author Oliver Sacks.
“Karl Abbasonov is one of five known sufferers of the musculoskeletal and neuropsychological disease locomotor ataxia agitans libertaetis,” Gonzales writes in the story “The Artist’s Voice”. “In this affliction, a kernel of an idea infects the brain, like the spore of a fungus might infect the brain of an ant.”
Abbasonov composes classical music, but every time he thinks of a musical note, it causes his muscles to wither away. Music is so much a part of his being that he can’t stop himself, and he eventually becomes a shriveled, wheelchair-bound mass of flesh the size of a four-year-old boy.
“The Artist’s Voice” can be read as an allegory about the self-destructive qualities all artists possess. Like all the other stories in this collection, it’s written with wonderful precision and understatement.
In a similar vein, the story “Pilot, Copilot, Writer” is an existential tale about a man stuck in a holding pattern — literally — in a jet over Dallas.
“We have been circling the city now at an altitude of between seven thousand and ten thousand feet for, according to our best estimates, around twenty years,” says the narrator of “Pilot, Copilot, Writer”. The plane has been hijacked, and yet life goes on — babies are born and people age, onboard a jet that never lands.
Even after a generation in flight, the narrator tells us, flying feels the same: “I have decided that anything besides boredom and thirst and a dull, physical ache is beyond the reach of airplane passengers.”
At its best, the literature of the fantastic can be a window into the dark and hopeful corners of the human experience. But Gonzales’ aims in his first story collection aren’t quite that lofty.
More often, Gonzales is content to be a fabulist who loses himself in the simple pleasure of making the crazy things feel real, and constructing worlds with their own beautiful and bizarre order. A few of these stories take place in the kind of pseudo-historical realm mastered by such diverse artists as the writer Steven Millhauser, and the creators of the Museum of Jurassic Technology.
“The Disappearance of the Senali Tribe” is an amusing, matter-of-fact account of a great scientific hoax. Two ambitious academics invent an entire tribe, their rituals and their language, going so far as to create fake villages and then causing the tribe to “disappear”.
“It seems men and women ... have engaged in such hoaxes ... from time immemorial, whether for fame, notoriety, money ... or as nothing more than an elaborate joke,” Gonzales writes.
At times, Gonzales’ stories slip into the glib tone of mere parody. “Escape From the Mall”, for example, feels like a scene from a B-movie, as zombies, being zombies, devour people without rhyme or reason. (This reviewer thinks our zombie-saturated culture would be better off if we declared literary fiction a zombie-free zone.) In “Escape From the Mall”, as in a few other passages in this story collection, the writing loses its soul.
Gonzales does give a living human heart to one zombie in the odd and affecting “All of Me.” And there are several moments of dystopian wonder in “The Animal House,” along with lots of luscious revenge and gender conflict in the title story, a fable in which a man accidentally shrinks his wife.
But all the achievements of those stories pale in comparison to the extraordinary “One-Horned and Wild-Eyed”, in which two working-class guys in suburban Houston obsess over the animal one of them has in a shed. It’s a creature that looks “like some kind of pearlescent undersized horse or over-large goat.” And it possesses a single horn.
Unlike the characters in the other stories in “The Miniature Wife”, the two friends in “One-Horned and Wild-Eyed” inhabit a recognizably real American neighborhood and possess the foibles of authentic American knuckleheads. The unicorn comes between men and their wives, and between the old buddies themselves.
The protagonist of “One-Horned and Wild-Eyed” sees in the appearance of the unicorn a chance to capture the innocence and magic of his youth, the sense of wonder of a boy who could tell and retell a story, “embellishing it to ridiculous and impractical heights.”
As he plots to save and then steal the unicorn, the protagonist reflects on the emptiness of his adult existence: “I wondered when we had come to some reckoning of ourselves, some reappraisal of our personal narrative, when we had stopped thinking of ourselves as guys who did exciting, adventurous, childish things….”
“One-Horned and Wild Eyed” ends with a moment of transcendent comedy and weirdness. “I waited for something else, anything else, to happen,” the narrator says. One senses that character is a kind of stand-in for the author himself.
Manuel Gonzales is a writer who can’t wait for the next, magical thing to surprise him — so he makes them happen, in the big Texas sky of his abundant imagination.