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Hayden Robel

The Human Creature, Closely Observed: ‘Large Animals’ by Jess Arndt

Large Animals Jess Arndt’s Large Animals (131 pages; Catapult) traps its characters in self-constructed cages and puts them on display, presenting a bevy of cultural concerns about identity, sex, and the human body. Ranging from the 19th century to contemporary San Francisco and New York, the twelve stories in Arndt’s first book prove startling in their variety and verisimilitude, and challenge our notions of gender and the binary divides that too often fail to define us.

In “Beside Myself,” we witness the austere life of a woman attempting to impregnate her wife by using her brother’s sperm. Here, as in many of the stories, the reader inhabits the aching body of the protagonist, and empathizes with her while questioning one’s own physical insecurities as the narrator morosely remarks, “among all life-forms, humans alone [are] defenseless-vulnerable blobs clothed solely in skin.” A blend of the bizarre and believable, every story in Large Animals is voiced by individuals battered by the daily toil of living as outsiders. No story captures this motif more than the title story, wherein the narrator’s mundane life is disrupted by recurring nightmares of animals in her bedroom. As the animals become a burgeoning obsession, they develop an order in her dreams, a kingdom with a bestial hierarchy in which the “massive, tube-shaped” walrus reigns. When the walrus speaks, its words are obscene but devoid of context. The narrator’s nocturnal encounters rapidly deteriorate her life, revealing her dormant sexuality and animalistic lust towards a fast-food worker even as she struggles through a vicious divorce.

And in its short shorts like “Containers,” where a decision to stay home and smoke weed rather than party with friends compartmentalizes an identity crisis in less than three pages, Large Animals proves wickedly entertaining. These are modern fables of the body exposing a naked perspective on femininity, masculinity, and the need — or lack thereof — for human relationships.

Carnal and experimental in tone, expressed in Arndt’s beguilingly casual and frequently colloquial prose, Large Animals is equally vivid in its depiction of human vulgarities as in its exploration of the body. It prowls through our preconceptions of the sexes, paring back its fallible, idiosyncratic character to render a raw and unnerving portrait of the self. “Animals are only animals because they are observed,” one character says, and here Arndt observes the largest animal, exhibiting our fears and our instincts.

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What Memories (and We) Are Really Made of: ‘Void Star’ by Zachary Mason

Void StarThe crux of speculative fiction is not always found in inventing new worlds but in skewing our own. Zachary Mason’s Void Star (385 pages; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) does just that, chronicling the struggle of its misfit characters as they fight to survive on an Earth in which the oceans have risen and threaten to submerge the majority of the planet’s remaining landmass. As affluent technocrats revel in their riches atop skyscrapers, the poorest of society are corralled into filthy favelas below them. Nowhere is this stark divide epitomized better than Mason’s meticulously rendered version of San Francisco, a lurid cityscape where wealthy citizens augment themselves with neural implants and autonomous government drones patrol the Bay’s smog-strangled skyline. Into this world, Mason introduces us to the fraught lives of a trio of characters, each facing separate adversities, but each eventually colliding to reveal a city of supreme science, surprising surrealism, and lurking menace.

As a “computational translator” Irina employs her cerebral implant to convert computer code into words. Her rare ability allows her to know the “temperature” moment to moment, to hear “all the chatter of all the surveillance drones” or “see through their cameras” anywhere within the city. Her implant enables her to store memories at will, selectively saving sensory details, even if they’re only flickers of images, sights, and sounds. An intermediary between artificial intelligences and her wealthy but frequently less than human clients, Irina floats between states of liminal thought and interrelating with people, leaving her hollow. We inhabit her haze until, like all the characters in Void Star, she is awakened to a sinister plot after witnessing something on a computer screen she shouldn’t have.

Kern, on the other hand, has little time to contemplate his Spartan existence as he grapples with the sludge of the slums. A thief who has honed his body and trained in martial arts, Kern stays connected to the world through his laptop, his only possession he hasn’t pawned or stolen. When he robs the wrong target, Kern’s story takes us through the unrelenting hell that is the lives of the poor as his independence, his strength—what little he had left—is taken from him. The novel’s third narrative follows the life of Thales, a refugee and the sole surviving member of a Brazilian political dynasty. Thales suffers an unexpected blow when he’s captured by an unknown force and thrust into an inextricable matrix of corporate conspiracy and familial dread.

Void Star asks the reader to contemplate several questions. As Irina parses through code and electric symbols, we digitally dive into her and all of the characters’ consciousness, forcing us to consider which experiences matter, how our memories and the details we observe make us whole. Are we curating a facade of a personality through the artifice of civilization? Do human relationships matter when artificial intelligences are slowly supplying the same basic interactions? And how do we rectify unparalleled technological prosperity with global disparity?

Speculative fiction has long wrestled with these ethical quandaries, but rarely has it done so with the power of language and prescience found in Void Star. Mason’s prose is prodigious in scope and exultant in its decadent imagery of a pseudo-dystopian San Francisco. A combination of Gibsonian grunge and the existential intrigue of Philip K. Dick, Void Star explores the artifice of memory and the limits of man’s comprehension, all with a dash of Bay Area bedlam.

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Fearless Ballet: Q&A with Deb Olin Unferth

(photo by Elizabeth Haidle)

(photo by Elizabeth Haidle)

Wickedly funny and utterly relatable in its depiction of human plights and personal tragedies, Wait Till You See Me Dance (200 pages; Graywolf Press) marks the return of Deb Olin Unferth to the world of short stories. From the banal life of an adjunct professor harboring an unrequited love in the titular story to a man held prisoner by his phobia in “Fear of Trees” (published in ZYZZYVA No. 108 along with three other pieces), each story within the collection is imbued with Unferth’s wit and dark humor, capturing the spectrum of human drama with a tinge of believable absurdity.

Unferth talked to ZYZZYVA about her often-volatile relationship with writing, the influence of her family on her work, and her philosophies on craft.

ZYZZYVA: It’s been a decade, since your last short story collection, Minor Robberies, and a little over six years since your memoir, Revolution. Was the process of writing Wait Till You See Me Dance any different for you this time around?

Deb Olin Unferth: It was easier this time, to be honest. I’ve been in hiding for so long it feels like, working on three books at once takes a long time.

Z: Hiding or teaching? I’ve noticed that in many of your stories the protagonist is an educator of some sort.

DOU: Well, I’ve always taught when I write, been doing that forever, but recently I’ve been involved in a prison project that’s been taking a lot of my time. It’s a two-year writing program teaching inmates at a maximum-security penitentiary down in southern Texas.

Z: That’s interesting considering the main character in “Mr. Simmons Takes a Prisoner” teaches inmates, and—like many of the characters in the collection—is portrayed in an incredibly vulnerable way. You depict Mr. Simmons as an apathetic father and husband, who’s contemplating abandoning his family for a prisoner he’s teaching, yet you manage to make him sympathetic through it all. Is this vulnerability a conscious effort on your part?

DOU: It’s funny you mention “Mr. Simmons …” That story was based on my father. He volunteered, like Mr. Simmons, to tutor an inmate, help them rehabilitate before being released back into society. My dad started meeting with her all the time, writing her letters, paying for her textbooks and courses. When I wrote the first draft of the story I think I was a little mad at him—it was not a funny story. Years later I rewrote it for this collection and, at this point, my dad and I had healed our relationship. He literally sent me a fax saying he wanted to be closer to me and included these letters between him and the prisoner. I was furious with him back then and that was the original draft’s tone. So, when I took the story out of the box and rewrote it, I could see his humanity: he was a changed man and so was Mr. Simmons. In terms of vulnerability with my characters, I just want there to always be something at stake.

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