As readers will guess from the title, Diane Cook’s collection of stories has an archetypal reach.

Man Nature Cook

HarperCollins, 2014

These are stories that one can imagine discussing at length in creative writing classes, stories that could nestle into the curricula of English courses which study contemporary American fiction.

But there is no nestling in these stories; these tales are simmered in dramatic tension. They are characterized by a tangible physicality, the author as equally skilled in depicting visceral sexuality as acts of brutality.

These are difficult stories to read, but the same elements which make them challenging also make them compelling. Particularly when it comes to unravelling motivation, the narratives pose a variety of questions, and readers who enjoy psychological drama will find these tales irresistible.

“Each game has rules, and we make them complicated.”

The stories’ complications provoke a variety of responses, and readers are more likely to be repelled and saddened than reassured or satisfied. But if the primary purpose of art is to upset the balance, to inspire debate and discussion, to create a space for new possibilities? Then Diane Cook’s stories are essential reading.

Even when it comes to archetypal images, however, these stories are not straightforward. They pose questions. They do not offer resolution.

In one story, the forest represents the unknown, but later in that story the question is raised as to whether the unknown is something towards which the main character should run or whether she should run away.

Perhaps it’s not even about the forest. Setting aside tales of breadcrumbs and wolves dressed in granny’s nightgown, perhaps there are deeper concerns.

“The woods aren’t dangerous.”
“The woods are what’s in them….”

Even without the context of the story to complicate these statements, which are drawn from a different story than that quoted above, these sentences are fascinating. Readers who have to grapple with the questions of sanctuary and exile, restoration and devastation, mortality and morality which haunt this particular story have much more to consider.

Consider these lines from yet another story:

“Everything is man versus this and man versus that…man versus everything. It’s me. It’s you. It’s us. It’s in us. It’s in….”

What’s in them. What’s in us.

Sometimes the layering between stories is subtle like this; readers partaking in the stories over the course of several weeks might miss the details which knit the collection together.

But the general preoccupations of the stories and the characters who inhabit them appear as echoes throughout the pages.

In one story, an older woman muses: “As the manual often states, this is my future. And it’s the only one I get.” And, in another tale, a young woman observes: “Freshman year starts, and somehow everyone is someone else, someone older, someone interested in the faraway future life.”

These broad-reaching themes, like identity and the human preoccupation with meaning, underscore the collection as a whole.

“Is there any difference between us beyond a few letters in our names?” Perhaps we are not all that different. “We were becoming like other kids. And it was so easy. Just a series of steps.”

But the steps that Diane Cook’s characters take are often unpalatable, distasteful, disturbing. What saves readers from being overwhelmed by the content is the author’s precise and spare language. Despite the stories’ physicality, there is remarkably little sensory detail.The prose style is clean and stark, with only a smattering of dialogue and a few choice images to colour the texts.

Illness sweeps a man into bed, solitary people are like floats in a parade, a man tastes like a warm olive, and a sound settles like leaves in a lap. But overall, these stories are preoccupied with grand events presented in the simplest terms.

Man V. Nature: it’s me, it’s you, it’s us, it’s in us.

And, yes, that’s disturbing. As it should be.

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Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to participate in this event. For other readers’ opinions, check out these sites:

October 15th: Book Hooked Blog
October 16th: The Book Binder’s Daughter
October 20th: The Well-Read Redhead
October 21st: BoundbyWords
October 22nd: A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall
October 23rd: Svetlana’s Reads and Views
October 28th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
October 29th: Shelf Notes
October 30th: Luxury Reading
November 3rd: Patricia’s Wisdom
November 4th: Bibliosue
November 6th: Inner Workings of the Female Mind
November 7th: guiltless reading

Have you been reading short stories lately? Was this collection on your TBR list, or, have you scribbled it down now?