Wilson’s stuff is built on a comic book vibe, the spectacular as ordinary. But there is something so warm and heartfelt amid the ridiculousness. As Wilson says: you can take these strange occurrences and when you read these stories you have the feeling it’s not that big a deal.
The overall tone is (Wilson again) “awkward people who wish they weren’t alone but don’t know quite how to fix that problem and so what happens is they end up doing strange things.”
“Tunneling to the Center of the Earth” projects bold, confident, matter-of-fact weirdness. These stories start strange, stay strange and beg you to believe all these unusual situations are, well, perfectly plausible. Wilson stretches the ordinary. Part of the inherent tension is this: how far is he going to take this premise?
Wilson’s characters accept their reality. In fact, the main character must not really seem to notice or mind, in fact, that their world spins on a slightly different axis.
One story, “the museum of whatnot” (the story titles aren’t capitalized) gives us 31-year-old Janey who is the “caretaker and sole employee of the Carl Jensen Museum of Whatnot.” It turns out that in 1927 Carl Jensen passed away without heirs and he has made the house he lived in available to the public. “However, Mr. Jensen had no art collection to speak of, no gold-leaf furniture, no snuffboxes from China. What he did have was five hundred and seventy-three framed labels of canned apricots, apricots that none of his closest friends had ever heard him admit a fondness for.” There’s a regular museum visitor, a doctor, and Jenny explores a relationship with him and bristles from the advice from her off-screen mother, who chimes in by telephone. (The mother is our voice; she represents our urge to pull Janey back into a bit more of stable universe.) The story is both touching and powerful.
Hard to pick a favorite, but “birds in the house” is right up there. Four brothers are busy folding paper cranes, 250 each, because those are the instructions in the will from the narrator’s grandmother, who has devised a simple contest to determine who will inherit the long-held property Oak Hall. When the paper cranes are completed, four fans will be switched on and the brother with the last crane on the table will win the property. “My father and his three brothers fold tiny pieces of paper, squares of yellows and pinks and whites and blues and greens so thin that light passed through them as if they aren’t there at all. I watch the brothers’ hands, callused and big like sledgehammers, as they struggle not to tear the cranes, not to snap a neck or rip a wing.” The tension is palpable as the crane population grows and the narrator recounts what little she knows about the family history. Yes, there will be tricks. The ending is a poetic, beautiful. (None of these stories fizzle out, they really end.)
And in “go, fight win,” the ordinary idea of new girl in town, trying to fit in, is taken to extremes. With a mother who is her own biggest cheerleader, Penny listens to her mother’s advice and follows her own heart’s desires, too. For one, she likes building models. And second, there’s a neighbor, a 12-year-old boy, who has a thing for fire. Events run far out of Penny’s control but still there’s this bond between Penny and her neighbor and Wilson makes you feel it, too. He insists that you do so.
In the title story, absurdity is taken to sci-fi cartoon land and “the shooting man” isn’t just Twilight Zone, it’s right up there with pure horror. A classic. Rod Serling would have dug it.
This is a marvelous bunch of stories from a storyteller who doesn’t flinch at the odd thoughts and ideas that cross his mind. In fact, he practically embraces them.
His first novel, “The Family Fang,” comes out in August. I’m going to put it on my list.
Great interview. (You have to like Wilson’s low-key approach to what he’s trying to accomplish.)