Robin McLean’s first novel, Pity the Beast, a sublimely dark revenge western told in a variety of human and animal voices, generated a startled response from readers and critics, admiring of its originality and repulsed by the frankness of its violence. The same huge energy and weirdness present in that book drives these 10 stories. If you are at ease with the unpredictable, they will grip hard and pull you in.
But for Herr Hitler is a story about moving to Alaska: about fate, history and unimaginable consequence. A terse, moody prose style mutates into one that is “strange and lavish” (as one character, Eric, describes his partner, Iris). The concept of America as a place where people go to make good, to make themselves, is placed in tension with the America of the unmade and the lost. Iris, the character whose life and death story this is, asks: “Where do all the gone people go?”
McLean writes at times with the hyper-keen vividness of nightmare: not surrealism but a kind of American expressionism, like a darker, gristlier Donald Barthelme – grotesque, comic and unsettling.
In True Carnivores a woman sells her house, steals her sister’s money and abducts her child. The Auntie, like most of McLean’s characters, is deliberately incomplete: a stuck moment of self, there and then gone. Her actions seem incommensurate with her motivation, but at the same time she, and the other characters, are strongly present and convincing.
The US military features across the book: a dead brother in House Full of Feasting, a dead husband in True Carnivores (“blown to bits on his third foreign tour”). In the title story, an enemy is advancing on “the northernmost outpost on the Northwest Front”. In scenes reminiscent of wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan, the base is gradually, chaotically evacuating. A guard soldier, Private Martin, is held behind for an infraction committed by his night-time counterpart, who has abandoned his post. Martin recollects a general on a soldiers ‘training exercise who had said: “’ Give them rifles. Give them caps. ‘ Then he whispered the secret: ‘Get’ em young, treat ’em tough, tell’ em nothin. ‘”In a life where confusion and ignorance are intended, violence provides purpose, with or without an objective.
There is a sense of the center not holding – of American anxiety as a bestowal to us all, as American energy once was. In the mind of Private Martin, “the tundra was not one dumb thing but billions! The tiniest stupidities knitted together. Doltish leaves, small like mouse ears, forking foolishly from dimwit twigs overlapping endlessly with same, blending together only in the eyes of thickskulled watchmen and other hoofed mammals. A continental moronic collage. ” This caustic description could be of the United States, or everywhere.
Even outside the violent events in the book, violence is ambient, present in the incomprehensible strangeness of nature – including our own, which puts the book atmospherically, if not theologically, alongside Cormac McCarthy and Joy Williams. There’s a suspicion that life force and death force are one.
In wild places, McLean has said in an interview, “you feel the correct size. I do feel that humans have gotten really mixed up about our size. ” Humanity and its wildernesses are only a part of McLean’s story worlds, and not always the central one. Other selfhoods are present: animal, botanical, geological. “Those beings are not background.” McLean’s ability to look beyond the “minority species” view, our own, gives her stories much of their peculiar concentration and vertiginous originality.
By working beyond the familiar artificialities of realism, McLean creates dense and memorable pictures of American life that are intensely and oddly real. Some themes or objects – a cat that lives in a pond, a pterodactyl out of time – are perhaps not meant to be read metaphorically, but as talismans of instability and mystery. Underneath their fantasies of capacity and agency, McLean’s characters are, as the narrator in the superb House Full of Feasting says, “helpless, as we all are, every day of our lives”.