When you’ve looked up a book title, have you ever been tempted by the other books you’ve found with the same title as the book for which you were searching?

In adding Lori McNulty’s debut short story collection to my online TBR list, I discovered several other books with the same title, including Tracy K. Smith’s poetry, Jon Agee’s children’s book and Jennifer Brown’s middle-grade novel.

Smith Life on MarsLori McNulty actually offers “Evidence of Life on Mars” while Tracy K. Smith suggests “The Universe is a House Party”.

Jennifer Brown’s novel includes Morse code for “We come in peace” and Jon Agree supplies a box of chocolate cupcakes. (Well, of course.)

The poetry collection heads straight for the psychological territory that one might expect.

The titles of the poems are filled with wonderment and curiosity. Tracy K. Smith considers “The Largeness We Can’t See” and “The Universe: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack”. (This is doubly appropriate as the notes explain that the collection’s title is courtesy of the David Bowie song.)

“Tina says what if dark matter is like the space between people
When what holds them together isn’t exactly love, and I think
That sounds right – how strong the pull can be, as if something
That knows better won’t let you drift apart so easily, and how
Small and heavy you feel, stuck there spinning in place.”

These poems feel more like narrative than lyric; as a prose reader, I am immediately comfortable. The ideas simmering beneath these poems are the same kind of ideas that bubble up in the novels and stories I gobble more readily than poems. If this is outer space, I can snuggle in.

Upstairs at the StrandIn Upstairs at the Strand: Writers in Conversation at the Legendary Bookstore (2016), Tracy K. Smith speaks with Tina Chang. When asked if there are some poems in the collection which were harder to write than others, she switches gears to discuss ones that were harder to read, including one which she doesn’t think she’s ever read for an audience.

She digresses to describe the experience of reading from the collection knowing that someone else in the audience actually knew her father (was, in fact, her father’s girlfriend of twelve years, who happened to be visiting New York), given her struggle to come to terms with his death through these poems, being accustomed to sharing that experience only with people who only “knew” her father via these poems.

She explains that “there are some poems in the book about family that are a litte bit hard” and specifically references “No Fly Zone” which made her say some things that she had “always tried to swallow”.

If these are poems about Mars, they also are about the strangeness which makes us Earthlings cozy up together (and makes us mourn when the dark matter takes hold).

Jon Agee’s story is written for younger readers, or for older readers who appreciate illustrations as much as text. Our protagonist is, nonetheless, an explorer who has questions about the world around him.

Agee Life on Mars“I am on Mars. I hve traveled a long way from Earth. I am here to find life.” He is seeking life on Mars, and he has brought a box of chocolate cupcakes as a housewarming (planetwarming) gift.

The story is simple, with only a few words on each page. Our protagonist is not distracted from his goal for even one moment. In this way, he bears a similarity to the poet and all of the other seekers here.

Jon Agee’s Life on Mars provides readers with a perfect example of irony (in a double-spread), as well as a playful resolution which invites more questions.

Jennifer Brown’s middle-grade novel Life on Mars offers a blurb which focuses on “The Astronaut”, “The Mission” and “The Hypothesis”. Arty comes from a family of scientists, you see, and his name is Arcturus Betelgeuse Chambers. The geek factor is off the charts and he’s not even trying.

Also seemingly effortless is the goofy and funny tone of the story. True, some of the jokes will go over better with the middle-grade crowd (which is as it should be) but it’s not all talk of boogers; there are little bits for the grown-ups too, as when Arty describes how his “best memories get all boogered up”.

At the heart of the story is an unexpected friendship, which is sweetly satisfying without crossing into full-blown-saccharine territory; the connection might seem a little too-good-to-be-true, but it isn’t all sweetness-and-light either, because not everything works out brilliantly.

Brown Life on MarsThere are Fun Facts about Mars at the end of the book and fun chapter headings too (like “Total Eclipse of the Mom” and “The Big Scream Theory”). So, even though I’m not super science-y, I loved these parts of the story and immediately thought of readers (young and old) who would enjoy the story.

Speaking of stories, you might remember that it was Lori McNulty’s collection of stories which started all of this.

Previously, her work has appeared in some top-notch Canadian literary journals (the Dalhousie Review, DESCANT, Fiddlehead and the New Quarterly) and been nominated for the Journey Prize (for “Monsoon Season” and “Fingernecklace”).

The short story is an ideal medium for this author, who delights in trying on a variety of narrative voices and peeking into the dark corners of this planet. No need, really, to look beyond Earth for strange and unexpected things. A number of her characters feel at odds with the world around them, as though they belong somewhere else entirely, but are forced to find their own niche.

She explores the voice of addiction in New York City.

“The piano notes strike up bright orange hues, are climbing a Technicolor pedestal in Tu’s skull.” (“Two Bucks from Brooklyn”)

And of a young widow in Calgary.

“Until I met Marcus, I was half done, like a foam cake bent on not rising, though you whip, you whip.” (“Battle of the Bow”)

She plays with geography and classic novels, peering into Middle of the Road High School, which is situated at the end of Suburban Sprawl Lane, and through the lens of Italo Calvino’s masterpiece, in a story titled “If on a Winter’s Night a Badger”.

“In the dissolving moonlight, under a starry wilderness, the only thing that matters now is to continue reading. Don’t let your attention drift. The fragments and fallen crumbs will pull you apart, may abandon you in places. Read on. The good part is coming.”

McNulty Life on Mars

Goose Lane Editions, 2017

The language is simple and rarely dips into figurative territory (but sometimes claws do emerge unexpectedly in the story and rice could smell “like buttered bones”).

For the most part, the emphasis is on the invitation: the invitation to inhabit another’s skin, if only for a few pages. Also for the most part, this isn’t entirely uncomfortable.

In “Monsoon Season”: “Her long legs draped to a perfect patent-leather point on the floor.”

But they are not so uncomfortable as to leave the reader breathless either.

In one story, for instance, two siblings plot an escape from an abusive family life. It’s a touching relationship – messed-up and believable – like an episode of “Shameless” but with Canadian content – and some ugly things happen, but the resolution offers a potential transformation. It might be good, it might not be, but it’s an offering to the reader, a chance to slip off a pair of patent-leather pumps underneath the table while the conversation continues.

These stories don’t carry the grit of some contemporary collections (like Shawn Syms’) or overwhelming darkness (like Elaine McCluskey’s). Yes, in one story, there’s this: “His head a red planet, light screaming through his skull. Gus said the meds were like sparks shooting off.” But, also this: “The smell comforts him, in a quiet way, as dawn breaks between glass and steel, bathing Yonge Street in fractured yellow hues.”

The stories do not vary dramatically in style (like Cherie Dimaline’s) although they do not possess a homogeneous voice either (like K.D. Miller’s). Instead, there are fine threads connecting the stories – a focus on the elements and a glimpse of the faraway – but the reader can take time with the collection, allow time to unfold between the stories, and resituate themself upon return, gazing upwards, musing.

“Cold as this grey day in February. Cold as the dark side of Mars. Cold as a fist of raw hamburger in the freezer. Cold as dissected brain tissue on the coroner’s table.” (“Ticker”)

“On the farm at night you could see the Milky Way like a giant, hazy pinwheel. Sometimes even Mars, outshining all the stars.” (“Gindelle of the Abbey”)

Contents: Evidence of Life on Mars, Battle of the Bow, Fingernecklace, If on a Winter’s Night a Badger, Monsoon Season, WOOF, Last Down, Prey, Gindelle of the Abbey, Polymarpussle Takes a Chance, Two Bucks from Brooklyn, Ticker

Have you been to another planet in your reading lately? Literally or figuratively?

Which of these would be most likely to transport you elsewhere?