As it often is with new voices, it all starts with a dull buzz, and the sense of serendipity. Something allows the title or the subject matter or the quality of the prose to break through the daily clutter, the onslaught of suggestions and advertising, to sit with you, to hold your hand and not let go. That is the case with this powerful collection of fiction, The Physics of Imaginary Objects by Tina May Hall. For me, it started with early adopters, people like Dan Wickett at Dzanc Books and the Emerging Writers Network, and Roxane Gay at PANK. By the time I saw the cover, and tracked down a story online to get a taste of the voice, I was nearly sold. After reading “When Praying to a Saint, Include Something Up Her Alley” at her website (originally published in Black Warrior Review) I was in. All in. So very much invested. And a little bit scared.
JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER.
Long before I got my copy in the mail, I stared at the cover of this book. It was an early clue of what to expect. Throughout these fifteen stories and one novella, there is a constant sense that things may go wrong, that they will definitely go wrong, and that the paranoia you feel as a reader is not a lie, it is not a misinterpretation, there is indeed something happening, something dark, and uncomfortable. The image on the cover is of a mirror, propped up on a structure, black fabric draped over the hidden form, with the tops of pine trees reflected in it, a wire running down the front, off into the dead branches and out of sight. I have always had issues with mirrors. Mirrors and shadows, the things you catch at the edge of your vision. You turn, and there is nothing there. But was there? There is a sense in that cover art that something is happening just out of sight, the wire, it makes no sense, the table and the mirror out in the forest, you can almost feel the presence of someone (or some thing) standing just out of the shot. It is a feeling that came back to me many times while reading these stories.
CLUES THAT THIS IS GOING TO BE GOOD.
It was the winner of the 2010 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. Included, is “All The Day’s Sad Stories”, the winner of the 2008 Caketrain Chapbook Competition, selected by Brian Evenson. Black Warrior Review. The Collagist. Etc.
WHAT’S IN A TITLE?
There is a romantic quality to the title of this book, and quite possibly in the idea, the current trend, towards lengthy book and short story titles, a technique that Tina May Hall uses with great success throughout her collection. I’m reminded of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers or Laura van den Berg’s What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us. For me, it starts with the imaginary objects, the notion that we must be prepared to fantasize, to conjure up something, maybe from a dream, or a wish. And then, implore the physics of that object, the movement, the relationship of that object to its surroundings, the way that our hopes, our fears, manifest in the realities of our existence. They change, they emerge, and they can grant us pleasure, or they can torment us. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the possibility in the title of her stories “By the Gleam of Her Teeth, She Will Light the Path Before Her” or “There Is a Factory in Sierra Vista Where Jesus Is Resurrected Every Hour in Hot Plastic and the Stench of Chicken.” This humor and eccentricity balances the darkness that seeps into most every story, constantly battling for a place on the page.
A LIST OF WORDS THAT FLITTED OVER MY EYELIDS AT NIGHT WHEN I TRIED TO GO TO SLEEP, THE WORK REFUSING TO LET ME GO.
Haunting, visceral, lush, foreboding, sinister, mythic, ominous, bittersweet, fabled, rich, surreal, unsettling.
SOME EXAMPLES OF WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT.
It would be easy to say that this is simply a collection of strange stories, where magical things happen: a bottomless hole appears in a small town; a pregnant woman’s house is a magnet for wild animals; and a group of skinny girls carry the power of witchcraft around like a purse. But it’s more than that. The language is poetic, lyrical, and it lulls you into a false sense of security, something dreamy and sweet, only to turn on you, with a speed and violence that is unnerving. Take this example from “Skinny Girls’ Constitution and Bylaws”:
“We will gestate plump happy babies in the bone cages of our pelvis. When we lift our arms to the moon, there is a sound like branches scraping.”
“We will not stick our heads in ovens. We will not throw ourselves from bridges, nor weight our pockets, nor disturb our veins.”
This story goes on to list a baker’s dozen of young women, each one more bizarre, and touching, and tormented as the next. The beauty of what Tina May Hall does is the pairing of our humanity, the things we can all relate to, with the darker sides of life, the things we turn away from, and choose to ignore. We don’t talk about how we would like to put a curse on somebody that has wronged us. Or how we’ve stared at a bottle of whiskey and the pills next to it, or the long sharp edge of a razor blade, and considered ending it all. We don’t exact revenge, and we don’t plot the demise of others. And yet, don’t we? In our weaker moments, don’t we sometimes whisper to ourselves “I wish he was dead”?
“Skinny Girls’ Constitution and Bylaws” may have been my favorite story in this collection, but the winning novella “All the Day’s Sad Stories” is a close second. (And “Visitations” a very close third.) It’s a simple premise. A couple is trying to get pregnant, but things are not going well. Mercy starts kissing her co-worker, and Jake quits his job to be a professional online poker player. There are signs all around them, hints, perhaps warnings, and then the “Xs” begin to appear. I was immediately reminded of the tension and fear that wrapped around me when I saw The Blair Witch Project. Something so simple, a chalk mark, an “X” strategically placed under a window, or on the side of the house, on the mailbox, it created this presence, this paranoia, which overshadows everything they do. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s certainly something unexpected. The last lines are reminiscent of the emotion and perspective of her characters:
“Now, sitting on the porch with Jake, drinking day-old wine, she spots a paper-skin ghost of a cicada gripping her chair leg and is suddenly awash in happiness, recalling the way these somnolent insects sip tree sap and wait out the dark, the way they sing themselves from the ground.”
OTHER VOICES THAT JOINED WITH TINA MAY HALL TO CREATE A CHORUS IN MY HEAD.
William Gay, Lydia Davis, Kelly Link, Stephen Graham Jones, Aimee Bender, Miranda July, Holly Goddard Jones, Brian Evenson.
FAIRY TALES AND FABLES.
Another compelling component of this collection is the idea of the fable, or the myth. There is a history to these stories, something that connects the contemporary settings and everyday life with that of the fantastic, the mythical, the unknown. Whereas many of us may have grown up with fairy tales presented by Walt Disney, with the princess waking up, the prince saving the damsel in distress, there are other fairy tales that came to mind while reading these powerful tales. I kept thinking of the Brothers Grimm. I was reminded of a couple giving their baby away in “Rumpelstiltskin”, or a wolf devouring a grandmother and an axe-man splitting him open to pull her out in “Little Red Riding Hood”, or a witch who lives in a house of candy, cooking and eating lost children in “Hansel and Gretel”. Those are the tales that I am reminded of, stories that are fine to laugh about when reading them in all of their illustrated, Rated-G humor, but when they are thought of in a modern day setting they are simply horrific and unthinkable.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE PHYSICS OF IMAGINARY OBJECTS.
There are a lot of good novels out there, good stories being told. The rarity is the voice that stays with you, and in the case of The Physics of Imaginary Objects, haunts you. I found myself going back and re-reading, over and over again, passages, whole stories, and I never do that. I’m always eager to move on. I wasn’t this time. In fact, I put off writing this review because I wanted to spend more time with the words, the rich language and the layers of thought, emotion, suggestion, trepidation, and beauty. This is one of the best collections of fiction that I’ve read this year. One of the best I’ve read in a very long time. Reach out into the darkness and take its hand, fall in love with the shadows, and open yourself up to the unknown.