The act of creation has numerous side effects in "Hurry Please I Want to Know," Paul Griner's second collection and fourth book overall. In one, the popular work of a caricaturist has the ability to transform the physical attributes of his family and those around them, creating a scenario that juxtaposes cartoonish elements with borderline body horror; in another, a mourning man becomes one with the object of his grief. Griner's stories often begin with a moment of realism, slowly revealing the miraculous and the terrifying.
This unpredictability is present from the collection's first story, "Animati." There, the image of a fairly stock scene — people gathered in darkness for a surprise party — quickly gives way to a dizzying uncertainty; suburban mirth collapsing into one of Beckett's intangible landscapes. The collection alternates longer stories with shorter ones, and it's with the latter that some of Griner's most memorable images occur.
There's also "Immanent in the Last Sheaf," in which a community discovers a dying god, reacting unpredictably; the story's final line is impressively unsettling. And the scene captured in "The Only Appearance of Rice" (Griner has a knack for memorable titles) is a perfectly paced series of images.
Elsewhere, Griner's characters are literally malleable: receiving characteristics from a loved one after death, as in "Lands and Times" and "The Builder's Errors." And both "The Caricaturist's Daughter" and "Open Season" take high concepts in which everyday scenes are made into something more fluid and run with them.
In the former, it's the title character's struggle with the transformational effects of her father's talents; in the latter, it's in the way that words are literally hunted by a group of obsessives. The story "Betrayal" opens with a pair of lines that set the mood for the collection nicely: "My mother liked mushrooms. Not the real ones." In Griner's world, metaphors can change bodies, faces and identities, and the meaning of words can evolve over the course of a narrative.
For all that Griner memorably depicts fluctuating realities, it can occasionally become too dizzying. Thankfully, among the collection's high points are a pair of more grounded stories that still find the danger in more realistic scenarios. "Newbie Was Here" follows a young soldier sent on an absurd yet potentially lethal search, while "Balloon Rides Ten Dollars" juxtaposes the need for escape with the perils that can arise from it.
Like the ever-shifting landscapes encountered by Griner's characters, these stories channel unpredictability in a variety of ways, memorably showcasing the literal and figurative dangers around us.
Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn.