It may turn out that the two most influential American writers in the first two decades of the twenty-first century will be George Saunders and Aimee Bender. (The former published his first book in 1996, the latter her first in 1998.) After a prolonged period during which realism was once more the default mode in American fiction — whether in the form of the minimalist neorealism that arose in the immediate aftermath of postmodernism or just the more general kind of realism associated with writing workshop-style “craft” — Saunders and Bender again posed a challenge to its dominion. In their work, however, the challenge was expressed not through formal experiment, stylistic excess, or a broadly comic worldview, but by adopting a version of surrealism, directly posing against the presumption of lifelike representation in fiction its literal antithesis in fantasia and distortion.
Certainly neither Saunders nor Bender were the first late-twentieth century writers to incorporate surrealistic strategies into their work. Among American writers, Rikki Ducornet and Steven Millhauser offered surrealistic fables and twisted fairy tales in much of their work in the 1970s and 1980s, while the British writer Angela Carter may be the most accomplished of these earlier fabulists. Nevertheless, since the critical success of Saunders’ and Bender’s first few books, fabulation has increasingly become a prominent feature in the fiction of many younger writers. It has especially come to characterise the work of younger women writers, such as Karen Russell, Helen Phillips, and Joanna Ruocco (and, in the UK, Helen Oyeyemi), among whose ranks Nicolette Polek would appear to belong.
Polek’s début collection, Imaginary Museums, opens with a story called ‘Rope Barrier’ that immediately alerts us we are entering a world in which, at the very least, the implausible and the incongruous occur as a matter of course:
The woman invested in a rope barrier, with a green velvet rope, which she carried around in her backpack like a tripod.
She assembled it when she sat down on the subway. She assembled it at work when she responded to emails. She placed it beside her when she visited the cemetery, and in front of the curtain when she showered. Her husband sometimes stood on the other side of the rope and watched her rest in bed.
Quickly enough (the story is only three pages long) the woman finds that the rope barrier is increasingly ineffective in “protecting her” and in her frustration she takes an axe to it, chopping at it “again and again”. Thus we come to understand that the story’s apparently fanciful conceit — not literally impossible but certainly farfetched — is a device for portraying the protagonist’s fears and insecurities, her alienation from her own life.
Something similar is at work in ‘Arranged Marriage’. Here a would-be bride is clearly having second thoughts about her upcoming wedding, and the story relates her attempts to forestall it, depicting her hesitation in a series of efforts to find replacements for her own part in a performance whose script she is unwilling to follow herself: “Lilith looks exactly like a young girl except bigger, so the neighborhood girl named Susan, who is in eighth grade and looks exactly like a woman except smaller, is contacted to play Lilith’s part, the bride.” Unfortunately, Susan’s mother forbids her to go through with her scheme, and then, when Lilith fails to show up at the wedding, her uncle “agrees to put on the wedding dress” instead. Conveniently for Lilith, the wedding parties have already dispersed when she finally “bursts through the doors of the chapel with her dress half-zipped, an apology half-rehearsed.”
Like most of the book, both of these stories are diverting enough, darkly amusing in their way, but in each case the nudging of reality into a more oblique space seems an overly transparent strategy, designed to produce rather obvious effects. Feeling overwhelmed by circumstances, as each of these protagonists clearly does, is of course a common human predicament, yet it is difficult to conclude that either of the stories with their exaggerated embellishments render this theme more persuasively than would a more straightforwardly realistic account. Certainly such an approach leaves a more memorable impression, but arguably the ultimate effect of this strategy is to further emphasise the theme itself, to make the invocation of surrealism mostly an expedient vehicle for conveying the stories’ paraphrasable meaning.
By no means, however, are all of the stories in Imaginary Museums “surreal” in the way these two stories bend reality almost to the breaking point. (Sometimes onward into the purely fantastic, as in ‘Love Language’, in which an airline pilot announces to his passengers that they are lost, flying over “somewhere that should no longer be there,” and the passengers subsequently jump out of the plane into “burning clouds,” amid “an evil sound that brushes up against the side of the plane.”) While most of the stories in the book are very abbreviated, some quite clearly qualify as flash fiction, consisting of brief scenes or images, while others take the form of short, mostly realistic narratives that strongly highlight their characters’ loneliness and their failed efforts to communicate it to others. Indeed, the dominant tone in the stories as a whole is one of melancholy, which the strange plot turns and irreal flourishes in the less conventional stories really only accentuate.
But even in these relatively undistorted stories there is still a feeling of enervation, a lack of will or energy to engage with a reality that itself seems depleted, so that outbursts of the irreal might only be expected as a kind of compensation. In ‘The Dance’, a married couple, Esme and Ismer, persist in a state of perpetual misunderstanding, each trying to please the other but hopelessly incapable of knowing how to accomplish this goal. At one point the narrator tells us that “[i]t is as though the lexis of their feelings is a separate creature within the house. Like a fat cat that holds all their secrets and stolen glances. Howling, obese, and grumpy, the keeper of their true feelings, bursting with things that can’t be said.” It is as if, in this story Polek, has confined to this extended simile a correlative of sorts to the inner drama (or lack of same) in which these characters are implicated, rather than transforming it into a surreal occurrence — although one could indeed imagine a story that makes this cat a corporeal creature, beset with Esme and Ismer’s “secrets and stolen glances” and plaguing them with its presence, in contrast to the minimalist narrative of marital breakdown we actually get in this instance.
A few of the stories are more or less familiar tales of millennial malaise and anomie, infused with some extra desperation. The title story, for example, depicts a recently divorced woman who takes up painting as a way to counter what seems to be a newly felt sense of aimlessness in her life. Her painting instructor informs her of the existence of an Air-Conditioning Museum (“the AC unit is an anthropological lens for community”, he tells her), which she resolves to visit because she can go into New York City: “this museum and the city was the ‘perfect fix’ that could help her move on”. When she discovers that there is in fact no Air-Conditioning Museum after all, she is devastated beyond any reasonable measure, since she realises that the anticipation of her trip was providing her with false comfort — but comfort nevertheless. The story ends with the protagonist attempting to convert her apartment into its own kind of air-conditioning museum.
Whether explicitly surreal or just presenting “quirky” situations, the stories in Imaginary Museums are united by a predominant (although not exclusive) focus on the predicaments of their women characters. While it may be that the collection shows Polek to be oscillating between the fabulist mode and a sort of minimalist vignette, the effort to capture such predicaments, whether by representing them directly or by inflecting them through fantasia, clearly enough remains the goal. That most of these characters are captured in moments of disorientation and duress gives Imaginary Museums an effectively disquieting atmosphere, and Polek manages to maintain this atmosphere despite the staccato effect created by the extreme brevity of the stories — twenty-six of them in just over one hundred pages. But finally whatever impact the book might have as a challenge to narrative convention is muted by the uniform purpose to which all of the stories’ formal and narrative strategies are subsumed. Presumably Polek’s objectives will become more definitive in future work, but for now she ventures only into territory that remains safely recognisable.