No Animals We Could Name: Stories
“Mr. Sanders is an author born . . . what stories he will tell.”
Ted Sanders and his new collection of short stories, No Animals We Could Name, makes the reader feel old. Kids today and their keyboards, what they get up to.
Take for example, right from the start, the very first story, called “Obit.”
A Gordian knot of a thing, this story. Twisted. Not so much in terms of the narrative itself. And not in terms of characters or story development. It is the shape of the story itself, the way it’s printed on the page that confounds: all margins.
One slender lane of type down the middle of the page suddenly merges into two, then three—a verbal Bronx River Parkway—daring the reader’s eyes to follow along, to make any sense of it as it careens about.
But those old enough to remember “The Brady Bunch” in first run have learned a thing or two. For instance, that magicians’ slights of hand are meant to confuse the eye as well, to make the viewer miss the obvious.
Just as here, in this story, “Obit,” which, margins aside, is an old boot of a tale all gussied up with some shiny new socks.
It is a shell game of a thing in which we jump from character to character to character, as the author tempts us with how it will all turn out for them, like the characters who speak to us from behind their gravestones in Our Town, or those in American Graffiti who end up freeze-framed—Opie, the girl who later was in “One Day at a Time” and the guy with glasses from Jaws—with their life paths, happy, sad or otherwise, spelled out right next to their faces.
And so the old, curmudgeonly, and very drab reader, finishing his “Obit,” asks himself, despite the experience of tripping his way down the rivulets of sans serif, if indeed there is anything new under the sun and shakes his head slowly.
So here’s a thing about Gordian knots. When one tires of trying to untie the bastards, they end up rent asunder, sliced to bits.
In an introduction to No Animals We Could Name by author Stacey D’ Erasmo, we are told:
“Ted Sanders is a fearless, wild, tremendously sensitive writer, who seems to write not only about the three dimensions of the world we live in, but also about the fourth, the fifth, and the sixth.”
But on to other tales.
Get past the first two stories in the collection—“Obit” and “Flounder,” in which we once again play Guess the Psyche as the author restlessly jumps points of view like the editing and camera work in an 1980s Duran Duran music video—and the road ahead straightens out a bit.
Take the next story, “Airbag: One.” (“Airbag: Two” and “Airbag: Three” show up later, connected in terms of content but distributed willy-nilly in the collection. Kids today. Attention spans of fleas. Would a novella-sized story have presented too much of a challenge to readers who had already survived “Obit?”)
This one actually depends upon more than verbal thickets and illusions of all sorts, as if the author, out of sight, whispers, “Behold!” with each new trick.
“Airbag,” if I may refer to the stories collectively, shows Mr. Sanders at his best. Proves what made the reader so crabby to begin with: here is an author who needs no tricks, whose talent alone could be something formidable.
If it were left to speak for itself.
The sheer originality of the story comes from the heart of it, the characters, their actions, and their motivations—not from any slight of hand. It is, quite simply, a beautiful thing.
Here the territory of the story is well trod: a Michael Chabon-y house complete with faculty celebration, but the story rings with wry observations and wonderful characters, most especially Dorlene, who, for reasons all her own must ride in the back seat, Miss Daisy to our narrator, in that she must at all costs avoid the titular airbag. Suffice to say that she is a joyous creation, our Dorlene. She is well worth your acquaintance.
As to the rest, animals loom large. Quirks quiver out from the page.
In “The Lion,” the king of the beasts is sewn out of bed sheets with chicken bones for teeth and a bathrobe sash for a tail and comes to life for a grieving woman.
In the beautifully titled “The Heart as Fist,” a slim concept degenerates very quickly—the whole story logs in at four pages, two of which consist of a single word falling down that page in a single column—into wordplay.
And in the final story in the collection, “Assembly,” Mr. Sanders goes out as he came in, with trickery winning out over skill and a plot mixing equal parts of cliché and obscurantism (“Peter Lumley builds a machine that utters his name. It speaks like a metronome, in a voice like a woman’s or a child’s, talking his name over and over.”) until the reader, the drab, old, boring reader, upon reaching the end of the tale is simply glad that it’s over.
Mr. Sanders is an author born and could very easily become a successful teller of tales, but like the lady with too much perfume, he needs to learn to stay his hand after a single spritz and remove at least one ornament while looking into the mirror by the front door before consigning his stories to print. And then.
And then. Oh, boy, oh, boy, what stories he will tell.