With Animal, by Carol Guess and Kelly Magee. Black Lawrence Press, July 2015. 147 pages. $15.95, paper.
Fiction shows the humanity of our own nature. It’s a reflection of what is and what could be. With Animal, cowritten by Carol Guess and Kelly Magee, is one of those collections of fictions. It squirms, it screams, it claws at you. With every story, the reader is introduced to animals, to mothers, to the struggle of creation and expectation. Each entry is unique, yet each holds the common theme that is recited in “With Me”: “I wasn’t what you wanted, but I was what you got.” There is a sense of urgency and power within these words that empower the reader to care. You aren’t told to, you feel compelled to. Guess and Magee create lives as real as you and me, with an added twist, and show how human we are—and how human animals can be.
The twenty-seven stories in With Animal range from a few sentences to a few pages. They include mothers with bees, with sloths, with nebulas. They are a mosaic of nature amplified. They are quick and maniac sentences; there are beautiful constructions of structured prose. There is a sense of poetry here. The real good writers own it, and it’s found here. These stories are filled to the brim with the idea of the “what if.” Guess and Magee don’t make big splashes. They don’t make a grand spectacle of things. They have this subtle sense of reporting what they see, and this is apparent in “With Bees”: “And just like that, she sort of pops. That’s what it looks like. Her belly deflates, and a thing emerges that shatters and lifts and disperses weakly into the air. I say, ‘Holy hell,’ and someone screams and this old lady behind me says, ‘Bees.’” The whole idea is silly of course, that bees just spring from the belly of a grown woman, but the writing here makes it seem … oddly normal. This isn’t a horror story; it’s a nature story. And it’s one we need to read to understand ourselves.
Short story collections, for better or worse, must grapple the reader in with their opening lines. Unlike novels, with their memorable openings, short story writers have to do it time and time again. Each entry here, all twenty-seven, hooks the reader in—it’s not an easy feat, but it’s done well here. There is a sense of the fictional-real, writing that is ordinary and not filled to the brim with the fantastic, but still thrives with the idea of what if. “With Storm” has one of those openings: “A girl fell in love with a hurricane.” “With Human,” positioned later in the collection, brings you back down to the world we know: “When she learned that the baby was human, she felt disappointed. It rattled inside her, fearless and furless, alphabet of bones and thumbs.” With Animal is full of these twists and turns, and the rise and drop of expectations from story to story is real, is pumping like the blood of every newborn in every story.
With Animal isn’t as funky as it sounds. A lot of the writing within these pages shows the beauty, and dangers, of motherhood. The first story, for instance, “With Dragon,” focuses on the expectations of what is needed to be a good mother. What do you do when you aren’t sure what to do? Late in the story, we see the dilemma magnified: “Raising a baby dragon alone wasn’t what she’d imagined for herself. In sixth grade she wanted to be a princess and live in a castle. In seventh grade, a fire fighter. Now she was both, sort of; not really. The baby slept soundly. He was learning to crawl.” The stories crawl as the animal does. They learn and they adapt. They grow.
To call this a collection doesn’t do With Animal justice. It’s not something easy to compact and to organize. Each story stands independently; this is true. But every story has a deeper meaning, a deeper association. The connected themes—the central idea of motherhood and parenting—seem familiar in each story. Furthermore, there is a serious intention with this mosaic of familiar thought that should not go unnoticed. With Animal begins with a line from a transcript from Steve Wise of the Nonhuman Rights Project. Further investigation, for those not well-versed with animal rights, will show that this collection serves as a sort of fiction-fueled understanding of giving every animal the rights that humans have (and still deserve). It brings a new purpose to the writing; this isn’t writing for writing’s sake, it’s writing to educate and to empathize. If we just viewed things in a way familiar to Guess and Magee, maybe we’d be in a better world. The best fiction does this, no matter how far-flung the ideas are, no matter how tight the allusive prose is. The best writing excites the inner parts of the imagination that makes the world wonder.
Nick Sweeney lives in Lindenhurst, New York. He is allergic to dogs and chocolate and yes, he knows how terrible it must be.