The Gnome Stories by Ander Monson
“Unless you’re a freak,” Ander Monson writes in his freakishly good short story “Our Song,” “you don’t remember books word for word. You remember what they were to you, what you brought to them, what you took from them, what you left there of yourself or someone else, maybe. They’re here as little smears of memory, vectors and connections, like the role a star plays in a constellation.” While his new collection The Gnome Stories compiles eleven unsettling tales in a range of domestic, suburban darkness, a philosophical glimmer manages to consistently shine through. Monson, author of Vanishing Point and Letter to a Future Lover, is a dizzyingly good essayist and literary theorist, and it’s rapturous to read as he teases contemplative themes from the grimy murk of his fiction. The Gnome Stories unabashedly delves into suburban malaise, contemporary anxieties and fetishes, all while managing to leave ample room for the reader to reflect on their place in all this — on the nature of fiction and the relationship between a reader and a story. Let it in, Monson urges. Make it personal. “This is a game of breaking codes,” he writes in another story, quietly daring us to do the same.
“The Gnome” feels like an appropriate piece to start with, considering its plot (or a variation of it) reappears elsewhere in the collection, like a contagious motif spreading through the ether. It’s an urban legend about a group of drugged-out hikers who find a gnome in the woods, only to discover, upon sobering up, that the creature is actually a missing disabled boy. The narrator of “The Gnome” tells this story to her husband and his friends, and keeps telling it. “I clearly loved to,” she confesses. “I couldn’t tell you why.” It’s a shocking, uncomfortable yarn but one easy to imagine worming into a person’s subconscious thoughts. In a mere three pages, the gnome becomes something more than its viral storytelling potential: the narrator finds “a kind of magic” in its essence, and begins to brood over that fact her husband may not see the world anywhere close to the way she does. “You know a story’s good,” she reflects, “when it will not abide its end, when it feels like a secret you might keep from your husband and your kid for a very long time indeed.”
All of the stories in this collection have a similar innate potential. They’re stories to retell, but also stories that could reconfigure how we see the world. “The Golem” is a masterful twist on the ancient monster: what was originally crafted from mud in Jewish folklore and imbued with the potent spirits of community and purpose, rises instead in the backyard of an unhappy couple after a poorly planned and under-discussed foray into wifesharing and cuckoldry. “Would it surprise them to know that it had risen, or perhaps been summoned, in their triangle of electric pull and disregard?” Monson writes. The weight of shame and betrayal takes on a lumbering, massive form, but it also becomes an inescapable story: “it bent a little, then it bulged, and then it grew and split: a semi-colon, then a letter, an en dash, and then an em, and then a word, and then it stretched into a sentence.”
Other stories explore “a sort of approximation of maleness:” “Weep No More Over This Event” follows a recently divorced creep who kills an intruder he finds going through his ex-wife’s things. Poorly processing his own grief, he begins breaking and entering houses himself, in search of some recognizable feeling amidst his new life of absence. The excellent, sci-fi leaning “Our Song” is set in the near future and follows a memory investigator who forgoes professional rigor in the name of romantic overture, and tries to coordinate a last-ditch effort to win back his ex. “Even in the darker corners of these memories,” the man reflects, “we’re always bodies, learning how to be bodies, controlled by subroutines we can barely fathom.”
Even the most out-there of Monson’s stories feel familiar and resonate eerily close to home. By having these suburban legends take place in the cookie-cutter sprawl of mid-country America, they each feel about an arm’s-length away, as if these flawed perverts could be hiding nearby as neighbors, colleagues, or family. “All driveways serve another house,” Monson ominously writes, “the house that we inhabit and the house that we imagine.” In “Everyone Looks Better When They’re Under Arrest,” the narrator awaits a stove delivery that will finally put a reality-show home-renovation moment in motion for him and his wife. As they linger through a surreal series of shipment delays, the narrator’s thoughts anxiously spiral apart. “One of our neighbors is a killer in the making, we are almost sure,” he gleefully confides. “If not the woman, then the man (either one will do).” This strange story unfurls, like most of The Gnome Stories, into an exploration of the secrets we keep and those we project on others. Everyone is some else’s neighbor, Monson reminds us, and he suggests we consider our own place among an unseen system of stories — of gossip, judgments, history and passed-down legends.