The Miniature Wife inhabits an extraordinary universe

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      By Manuel Gonzales. Riverhead, 320 pp, hardcover

      Texas’s Manuel Gonzales practises something I believe in very strongly: don’t overexplain your silliness. The stories in his collection The Miniature Wife inhabit a world where outrageous creatures like swamp monsters, werewolves, murder robots, and zombies (twice) wreak havoc on the lives of the ordinary people around them. But he never wastes time trying to justify where, exactly, they came from.

      He’s even smart enough to turn that nonchalance to his advantage, winning the reader over by drawing attention to how hard he’s flouting the rules. “Pilot, Copilot, Writer”, for instance, takes place on a hijacked airplane that has been circling the Dallas airport for nearly two decades. The only thing resembling an explanation comes when an engineer onboard gives the narrator “a complex explanation, most of which I did not understand, centred around a rumoured ‘perpetual oil.’ ”

      Is there such a thing? “Well,” the engineer replies, “I’m not sure that there isn’t.”

      Just like that, we’re off to the races. “Perpetual oil” is never spoken of again. Can’t accept it? Parachutes are over there.

      That same harebrained spirit runs through the rest of The Miniature Wife. And keeping it all grounded is Gonzales’s fascination with regular human behaviour—mostly to do with male vanity and obsession. Technically, you don’t need a shrink ray or a black-market unicorn to write about those things. But it sure brings the ugliness to the surface that much quicker.

      Some of the stories are actually imaginative to a fault, given the form’s space restrictions. They wind up feeling underdeveloped and cut off, their premises discarded like half-squeezed lemons. You start to understand why so many of George Saunders’s similarly minded stories wind up as novellas.

      But plenty of others put the format to exquisite use. “Life on Capra II”, my favourite, concerns a settler on a chaotic distant planet who’s suffering from some kind of amnesia, or maybe posttraumatic stress disorder. A single battle scene repeats and folds in on itself, until even the swamp creatures and robots he’s shooting at become a blur. His friend Ricky gets killed a dozen different yet equally gruesome ways. The narrator, somehow, never gets touched—even when he closes his eyes and takes off at a full sprint.

      Despite it all, he keeps the fantasy of a certain well-endowed receptionist as motivation to survive. Until he realizes, as the full scope of his horror and disorientation starts to dawn on him: “When have I ever seen Becky’s ass?” She is a receptionist, after all.