Amid a variety of absurdities both silly and serious, the characters in this offbeat short-story collection wonder what it all means.
The 15 loosely interconnected stories of Patrick Somerville's "The Universe in Miniature in Miniature" (Featherproof, 304 pages, $14.95) explore such classic themes as love, death, time, the absurdity of life and the meaning of success. Every story is a stage for someone's philosophical ponderings; there's almost always someone wondering either what the hell they're doing or what the hell is going on. And yet despite such heavy topics, "The Universe" is actually not a downer.
A number of different styles are represented in "The Universe," from sparse prose-poem to almost paragraphless, run-on sentence ramble, to novella. Settings range from the ordinary to the skewed, with most stories hovering somewhere in between. In the title story, students at "the School of Surreal Thought and Design" work on abstract class projects that were never really assigned to them and may never be checked. The narrator of "No Sun" finds himself accepting the recent development of the Earth's ceasing to turn (and the resultant near-apocalyptic environment) with surprising self-possession. There are also inept aliens, a man who wants to borrow $85,000 from a writer friend for an experimental hair regrowth treatment that carries the risk of "total-body disintegration," and a recurring nightmare about vengeful ghost-oxen.
Throughout, Somerville endeavors to strike the right balance between cleverness and introspection. Often, he pulls it off; other times he's too obvious or (to take a word used by a couple different characters in a couple different stories) twee. He can also do well even when leaving the zaniness mostly behind. "The Wildlife Biologist," with one of the most traditional plots in the book, is surprisingly satisfying. In the story, a high school student's crush on a young, hot biology teacher begins to break down as she finds out more about him; meanwhile, her silly parents separate and then get back together. Perhaps adolescence is absurd enough that no added absurdity is necessary.
In addition to the cleverness-introspection issue, another seeming challenge for Somerville is voice, in that the voices of different characters across the collection are very similar. This isn't an entirely bad thing -- the voices are smart, direct, deadpan and self-aware, and the stories themselves are generally distinct enough -- but it does tend to whitewash the experience.
Even with some weak spots, "The Universe" is noteworthy in how it takes the serious and philosophical and makes it approachable, playful or both. With unflagging humor and an emphasis on how we are all in the same, utterly human situation, Somerville keeps the stories from creeping into despondency. It's as though he's both the creator of your pensive mood, and the friend who pulls the improbably silly antics that manage to make you smile in spite of it.
Kim Hedges is an editor and book reviewer in the San Francisco Bay Area.