More writers seem to be working over there toward the unreal end of things, near the place where, for instance, Donald Antrim’s hundred brothers and George Saunders’s theme-park cavemen live in splendor. But it’s a deceptively tricky thing to do well. Invention can pretty easily turn gratuitous if you’re not careful; freedom from the constraints of the real world carries with it a heavy responsibility to justify its exercise. In his entirely enjoyable and justifiably inventive debut collection, Scott Snyder works in the area of the unlikely, as opposed to that of the utterly impossible, focusing his imagination on what could happen if the axis of the earth were tilted by just a few more fractions of a degree. In the majority of cases he does this in service of a love story, often with the result of showing us something we can recognize in ourselves.
As Snyder points out, there’s a lot of bizarre stuff already in existence. When the ungrounded young man in “Happy Fish, Plus Coin” goes looking for a job along the highway “galaxy” outside Orlando’s Disney World, he finds himself considering the following options: “Gator World, Flea World, Orange World (housed inside a huge graying orange), Orlando’s Pawn World, World of Thrills, World of Tees, Scary World….” Snyder engages in a certain amount of gentle satire about all kinds of contemporary phenomena including fat camps, cosmetic surgery, and the culture of celebrity, but most of his head shaking comes in the form of fascination rather than cynicism. Of course, nothing causes more head shaking, or more fascination, than love, and appropriately enough it’s when people in Snyder’s stories begin to experience the emotional complexities of romance and relationships, as almost all of them do, that the strange things in the world around them come together to get just a little stranger.
The amusing path of the title story, for example, which is ultimately about the nature of commitment, leads through circumstances that connect an exhibit of the almost prehistoric sea life from the deepest levels of the ocean, an oddly affordable old mansion, a country-club prison for high-profile female felons, and the possible paranormal ability of one inmate to tell whether at core you’re a good person. “Dumpster Tuesday,” which depicts a love triangle of sorts, involves a brain-damaged country music star, a spear gun, and, yes, a dumpster. “About Face,” a story of jealousy, includes a juvenile boot camp, kidney dialysis, and a horse named Captain Marvel. But listing the elements like this doesn’t convey the easy way in which they come into play; it’s about as easy, say, as the way feelings of attachment can turn into mildly psychotic obsession. Snyder takes you down the rabbit hole, but the experience can be surprisingly subtle. And only the work itself can show how he manages to employ these elements to get to a place where a weighty last line—“‘Here,’ I said, pressing her palm hard over my heart. ‘Here’”—can come off just as lovely as can be.
The stories in this collection aren’t all entirely of a piece. Two of them, the first and last, are set in the first decade of the last century, during the amazing early days of flight. But for my money, the more or less amazing thing is what Snyder does in the others. He plays with reality but steers away from a feeling of contrivance and somehow, instead, through a recalculation of the plausible, evokes the way we encounter each other in the world.