About Man V. Nature: Stories by Diane Cook: A refreshingly imaginative, daring debut collection of stories that illuminates with audacious wit the complexity of human behavior, and the veneer of civilization over our darkest urges.
Told with perfect rhythm and unyielding brutality, these stories expose unsuspecting men and women to the realities of nature, the primal instincts of man, and the dark humor and heartbreak of our struggle to not only thrive, but survive. In “Girl on Girl,” a high school freshman goes to disturbing lengths to help an old friend. An insatiable temptress pursues the one man she can’t have in “Meteorologist Dave Santana.” And in the title story, a long-fraught friendship comes undone when three buddies get impossibly lost on a lake it is impossible to get lost on. Below the quotidian surface of Diane Cook’s worlds lurks an unexpected surreality that reveals our most curious, troubling, and bewildering behavior.
As entertaining as it is dangerous, this accomplished collection explores the boundary between the wild and the civilized, where nature acts as a catalyst for human drama and lays bare our vulnerabilities, fears, and desires.
My two centsI've been on a short story binge as of late, and if ever there was a gold standard for short stories, this is one of them. I'm putting this collections among the best I have ever read, along with these fantastic authors. Now that I've got that in the open, raves shall follow.
I started these short stories with trepidation. The synopsis sounded daunting. What if I hate them? Or worse, what if I didn't "get" them? But here's what happened: this review has been languishing, a sure sign that I'm at a bit of a loss at how to capture all the emotions, the questions raised, the sheer impact of these stories.
Many of the stories have a grim, dark, dystopian feel to them. Each new story brings the feeling of uncertainty ... and then the story hits you in that raw, visceral part of you that is very unsettling yet also very satisfying in a primal way. (The question is whether you are actually going to admit that your satisfaction is primal ;) Like admitting you enjoyed taking that much-needed piss, or that you loved gorging on all that chocolate, or ...).
In each story, too, there is always a twist, something slightly off, something bizarre ... and it's scary too, figuring out exactly where Cook will take you. One thing is for sure: the journey will actually bring you somewhere so much more closer to home. Are you ready for some serious introspection? Be honest because these stories are open to so much interpretation, and you can only get into them if you're willing to open yourself up allow yourself to rise up to the provocation.
There is a recurring theme in these stories that distills human nature to its basest. Like an animal, or a tree, or any living thing where the rules of the game are simple: it's survival of the fittest. It's man vs. nature, or in my mind, it makes better sense for me to simply say man vs. human nature.
These stories are disturbingly, scarily illuminating. They explore what it means to be human. Only by reveling in the dark side can we realise that human nature is wonderfully, gloriously both imperfect and perfect, dark and light, ugly and beautiful, crude and polished.
There are twelve stories in all:
From the very first short story entitled "Moving On"... I read, I pondered and succumbed to what I'd call Cook's "dystopian dunking". This reminded me vaguely of The Handmaid's Tale: a young widow is sent off to a shelter for "placement". This simply means she will be married off to someone else who has the means to support her, apparently the norm of this weird world. This story lays out a visual landscape of what it means to grieve the loss of a loved one, coming to terms and healing, and eventually "placement." She does it with the help of lots of workshops and the community of other women in the shelter. But when is one ever ready to move on?
The Way the End of Days Should Be opens with one desperate man after another knocking at one of the few houses left in a desolate wasteland of water that is the now world. The woman of the house refuses to take in any survivors save for one who becomes her protector. This got me pondering on how should the end of days be: safe, secure, fed, clothed yet alone? Or insecure but part of community that helps each other out? It's a difficult choice, as this story will highlight. Favourite lines:
"I'm wondering if he's heard me when he mumbles, "We're homeless." I don't know what he means. "Don't be absurd," I say. I'm certainly not homeless [...] But then I think I do understand his meaning, looking at the lapping endless sea, which for once stretches beyond metaphor and actually is endless. (p. 33, ARC)
If you're a parent, a mother, Somebody's Baby is bound to hit you in the gut. This tale of a woman who goes to great lengths to protect her young children from being stolen by the man (not the boogieman, but a real man who people have resigned themselves to his "normal" stealing of children). It will arouse all the tender feelings, the terror, the anger, the fierceness that mothers have for their young. Disturbing and with a very weird turn of events.
Girl on Girl is a twisted tale of teenage friendship that shows how nasty young women can be, as well as the drastic ends to which women resort to for friendship. I don't think I'll let my teenager read this, yet.
Man V. Nature is the the title story and follows three male best friends on their fishing trip turned disastrous, even deadly. In the process each man exposes his vulnerability as they learn their own little secrets, past and present, of their so-called friendship.
In eerily brutal tale of the survival of the fittest, Marrying Up shares the life of a woman who moves from one lover to another and finally settles down and becomes pregnant to the perfect man. While the husband and the child grow stronger, bigger, better than her, she comes to terms with the fact that she is not going to be one of the fittest.
It's Coming is a commentary on the viciousness of the corporate workplace. The alarm goes off and a group of executives are caught in their building ... there is a monster out to get them. In a wild chase throughout the building, these colleagues find out how they react and interact to one other in face of certain death.
A fatal attraction to her neighbour Meteorologist David Santana becomes a case of an obsession turned upside down as she discovers the truth about David's character.
I enjoyed the creepiness of Flotsam where baby clothes mysteriously appear in Lydia's laundry. Why? And what to do with these tiny baby things? Golden line:
They're following some instinct that has to do with morning.
All men should read A Wanted Man, a woeful tale of a virile man much sought after by women wanting to be impregnated and bear children with his great genes. But he no longer wants this life of sexual prowess, seeking the elusive security of a soul mate. Will he finally get the life he desires?
In The Mast Year, a woman experiences her mast year, similar to where trees have a year of abundance and animals are able to sense the abundance and flock to and gorge on the tree's offerings. Does living a life of giving make you happy? The dichotomy of life lived for others or lived for oneself is explored in what is one of my favorite stories.
The collection ends with quite the bang in the sinister The Not-Needed Forest, a Lord of the Flies-esque tale where the authoritarian State disposes of "not-needed boys" into the Not-Needed Forest. This is creepy, graphic, and underscores the theme of the survival of the fittest.
Verdict: An amazing collection of twelve short stories that mostly start out feeling like dystopian tales that slowly morph into an illuminating albeit disturbing introspection of human nature. Read it if you can take the darkness along with the beauty that makes up humanity.
This remarkable collection makes my list of top reads. I am hungry for more of what Cook has to offer.
About Diane CookDiane Cook’s fiction has been published in Harper’s Magazine, Granta, Tin House, Zoetrope, One Story, Guernica, and elsewhere. Her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times Magazine and on This American Life, where she worked as a radio producer for six years. She earned an MFA from Columbia University, where she was a Teaching Fellow. She lives in Oakland, California.
Follow Diane on Twitter.
Hardcover: 272 pages, Publisher: Harper (October 7, 2014)