Seeing the world from new perspectives: Sanders' unusual collection is this year's winner of the Katherine Bakeless Nason Prize for Fiction.
The animals in this debut collection are recognizable enough, even in their weird incarnations: the lizard mysteriously missing its tail; the enormous dog mouthing the head of a tiny party guest; the lion made of bedsheets by a mourning mother; the halibut who "swims on his side, affecting flatness." It's the stories themselves that are the strange creatures, at least some of them, and watching the author bring them to life is a rare pleasure.
Most striking, perhaps, is the story that opens the collection, "Obit," which was included in the 2010 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. Running in alternating and parallel columns, like an obituary contested by other glimpses and accounts of a lost life, the story offers a sense of that fullness of life that no one version can convey. Its form is, in a sense, a critique of form. At moments it might be more interesting to think about than to follow, but it rewards a reader's efforts with wonderful lines like, "The treehouse that will never be built will be described many times," and, "Nonetheless he will die in sadness, far from the girl he will never learn not to love."
The next story, "Flounder," divides its points of view between the halibut and the man paying to be taken fishing. Ted Sanders, we can be fairly certain, doesn't imagine he's thinking like a fish. But in pushing perspective to the extreme as he does here, he offers an outsize version of what he does so well, so subtly and so consistently elsewhere in his more straightforward stories: He makes us see everything anew.
Of these other, more formally conventional stories, a couple stand out, particularly "Airbag," the very long piece divided into three sections threaded through the rest of the collection. In this story the arrival of a bizarrely small woman ("an actual miniature person," the narrator tells us) acts like a free radical in a tight community already unbalanced by romantic realignments that are never made clear, only suggested.
And this is how the more emotionally resonant stories work: The key event, the crippling complication, occurs off the page, often in the past. A child dies, a love fails, a boy mutilates his pet, a man mutilates himself. The story, then, is an oblique reckoning, showing how whatever happened manifests itself in the rest of life, which again gives us that new and enlightening look at what might have seemed all too familiar.
Ellen Akins is a novelist and essayist in Cornucopia, Wis. She teaches in the MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.