Ander Monson is not like most writers. While others strive to have one book out in the world at a time, Monson has made it a habit of publishing twin volumes simultaneously. His short story collection, The Gnome Stories (Gray Wolf Press, 2020) is partnered with a book of essays titled I Will Take The Answer.
What shines in Monson’s work is an intelligence that reveals itself through short stories that tackle earnestly the dark underbelly of suburban life, the ways in which we falter when trying to overcome grief and trauma, and the interaction of these human imperfections in what is otherwise crafted to be a mundanely perfect world.
The eponymous gnome is a symbol of that prickly conversation between kitchen-sink suburbia and the off-kilter. The gnome first reveals itself in the collection’s most stand-out story, The Reassurances, where a man adopts a stretch of highway to propose to his girlfriend, only to witness her die in a fatal car crash. He recalls a story his girlfriend told, where a camping couple on hallucinogenic drugs encounters a gnome in the woods, only to later discover that it was in fact a human baby. Monson is masterful here in balancing the tension between the expected and the brazenly weird, as well as his brilliant ability to probe the echoing grief of losing someone you love.
Monson’s characters often present as straight-forward as white sliced bread, until we are presented with their darker, more complex inclinations. In the collection’s final story, Our Song, a man whose job it is to edit and alter people’s memories attempts to win back an ex-love, foregoing professional ethics, only to see his earnest efforts culminate in tragedy. In one of the collection’s more outwardly humorous pieces, Everyone Looks Better When They’re Under Arrest, a character laments: “We are at the pointy-end of some long, existential stick.” Monson often explores this penchant for existentialism, for wanting to mythologize our stories in order to makes sense of them, never more so than in The Gnome, where a woman is constantly telling the story of the couple in the woods who find the gnome, only to discover that her husband’s response makes her question the basis of their entire relationship, deciding that she “wanted him to see more of the world than he did”.
In Weep No More Over This Event, a man who has recently divorced his wife begins to display violent behaviour that escalates over time, an obvious exploration of the facets of toxic masculinity and ways in which society deals with it – a theme that is poked at intermittently in other stories like Believing in the Future with the Torturer’s Apprentice, where a woman narrates the life of her porn-producing husband, who asserts that, “You can’t deny [my work] moves you,” while the wife thinks quietly, “Deep down all of us are fucked.”
While this collection is at its strongest in longer pieces like The Reassurances, which provides Manson with an expansive enough canvas for his ambitious ideas to be showcased, and struggles slightly in shorter ones like In a Structure Simulating an Owl, there’s an underlying intelligence to these stories that betrays Monson’s background as an essayist and literary theorist.
What becomes expected in this collection of highly adventurous, decidedly unexpected stories is the author’s inclination to examine the scuffed edges that lie beneath a varnished exterior. “We’re…bodies, learning how to be bodies, controlled by subroutines we can barely fathom,” states the character in Our Song, and this, in a lot of ways, is the engine that drives Monson’s stories: the desire to unfurl the unknowable by trying to shine a light on the conversations that make us most uncomfortable.