Splendid Anatomies, by Allison Wyss, Reviewed by M. L. Schultz
Allison Wyss’s debut book, Splendid Anatomies, collects sixteen short stories that explore themes of physical and emotional boundaries, identity, dissolution, and dismemberment. But not in a grim way. More of a delightful, gently ironic kind of way (with a bit of gore included).
As a collection, the stories work in conversation with each other, both sharing in the overarching themes of the work and allowing the author to show off her versatility in the creation of a large number of unique situations and worlds. Wyss’s stories span a multitude of settings: the contemporary world, a laboratory running experiments on ghosts, plastic bubbles in space, a world made entirely of yogurt contained in a larger multiverse, and the “once upon a time” of fairy tales (the good, old-fashioned, pre-Disney kind of fairy tales, with all their inherent darkness).
Wyss is skilled at creating quirky, yet recognizable and sympathetic characters, like, for example, the main character in “You’re Perfect As You Are” who over-identifies with her Roomba: “I suppose it’s not bad logic, the Roomba. Go until you hit something, until your nose is pressed flat to a wall or a window or the flat palm of your lover’s hand. Then bounce back, adjust directions, and try again.” In several stories Wyss also revisits the theme of how our perceptions of other people, even imaginary people, can have a great amount of influence in our lives. For example, in “Roar” the narrator relates: “I was not pregnant then, not pregnant at all it turned out. But I thought I was. In fact, I was thoroughly convinced of it. My never-to-be-born child had already triggered the fight that had cost me my boyfriend and led me to live in a doublewide with my brother. Any kid with that much influence must be real, you know?”
Some standout stories from Splendid Anatomies include:
“Final Journal Entry of Dr. Francis Longfellow Hendrix, Lead Scientist at Laboratory 78,” which is written as a set of lab notes annotated with footnotes by a later editor. The story’s format invites the reader to read between the lines to determine the motivations of the doctor, the editor who wrote the footnotes, and the doctor’s numerous lab assistants (who are identified only by designations such as “lab assistant T-11”), as well as the truth surrounding the existence of ghosts in the world of the story (which might almost, but not quite, be our own world).
“Nutsacks in Space,” a tightly-written piece of flash fiction in which the protagonist begins with a meditation on the appearance of his nutsack in his zero-gravity space bubble, but which quickly builds to a surprisingly poignant conclusion.
“The Vortex,” which includes some fascinating and poetic meditations on the nature of time. It also includes a fantastic description of a character who has the same first name as Wyss: “Allison was the bartender that day. She was an ordinary sort of person, though she didn’t think so. She thought she was artistic in an unnamable way and possibly destined for greatness. She didn’t expect to write a beautiful poem or paint a beautiful picture but suspected she might inspire a poem or painting or perhaps a legendary heroic act which would be remembered for all time. She didn’t expect to perform the act, but for it to be performed in her honor or perhaps her defense.”
“Curse the Toad,” a story told from the perspective of a witch. This story speaks both to the ways that humans crave connection with each other and to the ways in which we change our behavior based on the judgements we imagine other people are making.
“Fast Dog Security,” a story that explores the way an unusual character manages his anxiety and his need to try to create order in the world while maintaining his relationship with his spouse. This story speaks to the ways in which our jobs and the tools we use become part of us.
While it’s hard to review flash fiction without giving away too much of the story, it should also be mentioned that the flash pieces in the collection (“Garden,” “Fishing,” “Sleep Birds”) provide some of the most vivid and jarring imagery in the book and are well worth reading.
M. L. SCHULTZ is a fiction writer and a Minnesota native. She enjoys reading works that are humorous, absurdist, and/or surreal, because they reinforce her belief that the world is an inherently ridiculous place. She is currently having way too much fun pursuing her MFA at Hamline University, as well as taking classes in web design. She is a member of the editorial board of Water~Stone Review.