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Reviews Mon Mar 07 2011

Book Review: The Universe in Miniature in Miniature

"THIS BOOK turns into...15 mind-bending MINI-NOVELS!" states the retro sci-fi cover of Patrick Somerville's The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, and this statement is accurate: made up of little worlds that often explode startlingly large, and just as quickly retract in on themselves, his short stories are affecting, sometimes subtle, sometimes over the top, with plots and characters that are an interesting, at times frustrating mix of blunt and vague. As you read, it becomes apparent that the personal stories are interconnected, forming a grand, epic, very human (and sometimes not so human) tale -- one that is often dark and without clear answers but rarely without a glimmer of hope, if not always clarity.

Aliens, universities dedicated to hair regrowth, and magical empathy-helmets populate the pages of The Universe, but at its heart the fantastic-tinged tales are about people. People governed by love, selflessness, greed, curiosity and lust, from a variety of backgrounds. Everyone's experience is unique, but with common threads: feelings of disconnectedness, dissatisfaction, and searching for understanding in a world turning in on itself, peppered with moments of happiness and inner peace. In the title story, Rosie is a student in the Surreal School of Thought and Design (SSTD) who makes models of fathers and sons making models of the solar system, her friend Lucy observes and is in love with a young man in a coma, while Dylan, the selfish third part of their odd romantic triangle, writes stories about scientists and soda wars. Aaron, the voice of "People Like Me", is a recent veteran of some secret war. Having seen and been responsible for unspeakable horrors, he wrestles with psychotic anger that rages just below the surface. Struggling with monetary lure of going back to his work, the temptation of the serrated blade in his boot, picking out flowers for his ex-girlfriend that are without meaning: "Just straight-up beautiful, but also simple," his failure to communicate is both disturbing and heartbreaking. Some are short bursts of consciousness and sensation, such as the interconnected tales of "The Mother" and "The Son". In the final tale, "The Machine of Understanding Other People," the fate of the world hangs in the hands and minds of a young social worker and a narcissistic, middle-aged alcoholic. Throughout it all, Somerville writes with a uniquely Middle American hand, placing his characters mostly around Chicago and the greater Midwest, referencing hot summers, endless winters, small-town southern Illinois and dripping Italian beef.

It is easy to mark these tales with a science fiction sticker. Dealing in myth and legend ("Vaara in the Woods" mixes family history and Norse narrative with the intensity of a bad dream), surrealism and whimsy, it's hard not to feel echoes of Bradbury, Gaiman, and even Kelly Link. However, his stories skirt the edges of genres, just as the people within them run, tiptoe and dream in between realities simultaneously otherworldly and mundane. Although at times confusing and hard to dive into, The Universe in Miniature in Miniature is worth the initial effort: after a few narratives, there's a plateau of sorts -- though not everything is clear, the absurd yet very real first-and-second person conversations are enough to nag and tickle the brain, enticing it forward to an international and somewhat sweeping conclusion. Once the interwoven nature of The Universe becomes clear, it's hard not to make like the characters and think back, unconsciously searching for clues and connection.

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