Caveat emptor, the Latin phrase generally translated as “let the buyer beware,” is a good rule of thumb to apply to blurbs on book covers and most press releases. A corollary of that rule is that, generally, the more emphatic the statement, the higher the red flags may need to go. Naturally, then, when a book is described as “genre-busting,” some degree of skepticism is justified.
Generally, though that term is a fair description of The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, Patrick Somerville’s collection of short stories. Some of the stories could be described as science fiction while others defy categorization. Granted, genre-spanning could also be used to describe the stories. Despite their variety and at times unusual subjects, common elements and themes connect most of the stories.
For example, the opening tale, which gives the collection its name, introduces us to the School of Surreal Thought and Design. SSTD makes an appearance in other stories that do not involve the characters of the first. Similarly, the random stabbing of a young man on the street plays a role in at least three of the stories. Characters, meanwhile, make an appearance in seemingly unrelated stories, serving to provide a common thread. More important, virtually all of the stories are at heart about their characters, characters often broken in one way or another. Those who are damaged often are, as one says, “stuck in time” or, in the words of another, represent “the human mind trapped by itself in a vacuum but there’s a very small window somehow within this empty and airless prison.”
Thus, “People Like Me” is about a mercenary trying to return to normal family life, but who is being recruited for another job (one which will play a crucial role in a later story). How far he’s been removed from normal life is reflected by the fact that after returning home from an anger management class he sleeps in a closet holding an assault rifle. “Pangea,” meanwhile, consists of the supposedly therapeutic journal ponderings of a man in a mental health facility. For Tom Sanderson, the central character in the novella “The Machine of Understanding Other People,” self-hatred and a descent into alcoholism aren’t as recent as his second divorce and losing his job as a corporate attorney.
On the surface, the book is somewhat reminiscent of Steven Millhauser’s Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories. Somerville’s characters, however, provide an edge that gives his work its own character, keeps the stories from becoming perhaps too precocious.
Although the book contains 30 stories (including a closing novella), a couple are vignettes of moments or events in two pages or less. That includes “Mother,” on a per word basis perhaps the book’s strongest piece. In it, a mother recalls the day her son was killed in that random stabbing. Not quite a stream of consciousness, the story traces her thought process from shock and dread to anguish and pain. (Later brief stories give the perspective of the son, a police officer who walks past the assailant shortly before the stabbing and the killer himself.) Immediately following “Mother” and nearly as strong is “The Wildlife Biologist,” in which a high school girl learns through her parents’ separation and her biology teacher of the failed dreams and compromises that can accumulate over the course of a life. In fact, Somerville’s frequent reliance on generally strong female narrators helps give the collection a breadth of perspective one might not expect a male author to carry off quite so well (or well from the perspective of a male reader).
As with any collection, not everything in The Universe in Miniature in Miniature will not resonate with every reader. In fact, this is the type of work where a group of readers can quite legitimately differ on which are their favorites and which stories are stronger than others. The closing novella, though, will likely provoke every reader into considering which stories tie together and in what fashion. Some may also wonder about the significance to be attached to any perceived connection between or among any two or more stories. Combining a light touch of science fiction with his emphasis on the characters, “The Machine of Understanding Other People” also helps epitomize Somerville’s “genre-busting.” Yet it also reminds us that the work as a whole may be its own machine of understanding other people, one that tends to give insight into not only the empty prison but, more important, the window.