One Kind of Menagerie: A Review of Ted Sanders’ No Animals We Could Name

Ryan Teitman

Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2012. 256 pages. $15.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

After reading the opening short stories in Ted Sanders’s strange and excellent debut collection, No Animals We Could Name, I think I have him pegged—here is a writer with a keen talent for lyrical, minimally plotted, formally experimental fiction. The opening story, “Obit,” takes the formatting of a newspaper obituary and manipulates it; the text begins in one narrow column, then divides into two, tracing the interconnecting stories of a boy, his mother, his father, and a bear.

In the next story, “Flounder,” the bulk of the plot consists of a man reeling in a fish (and accidently bringing up an octopus instead). During the climactic scene, a man in coveralls on the deck of the boat tries to kill the octopus with a baseball bat:

On the boat, the man watches as the octopus—whose flushed arms are writhing over the deck, clinging in places, fixing themselves briefly to the bait box, to the housing of the cabin—seizes randomly on the bat with two arms. They constrict and wrench the bat clean from the man with the coveralls. For a few woozy moments full of laughing and raised voices, an instant where then men standing around lean away, the octopus brandishes the bat over its head. The bat swings in a loopy, threatening circle. It strikes the window of the cabin and bounces away. It strikes the octopus.

It’s a jarring—but exquisitely written—scene, mostly because the rest of the story is so quiet. Sanders leans on his deft descriptions of the flounder, the octopus, and the man to keep the reader engaged, as the whole mess of them (man and animal) heads toward an inevitable confrontation.

I like Sanders the fabulist, the experimentalist. But then he drops “Airbag” on us—a 70-plus page novella (divided into three parts throughout the book) about a man with relationship issues, a bonfire doused with unreasonable amounts of accelerant, the seventh-shortest woman in the world, and a monstrously large dog named Lord Jim.

I’m not sure what to think. Which is the real Sanders? The one writing slim fables or the one who seems to get paid by the word?

The fact that I’m worried about a “real” Sanders seems to suggest that one goal of contemporary short fiction is tautological: part of the work a book of, say, Junot Díaz stories does is to define a Junot Díaz story. We expect an engaging voice and the Spanish-and-slang-infused cadence of Díaz’s narrators. But we also expect certain touchstones of subject matter: immigration, New Jersey, the problems of masculinity. We know the world we’re entering, and—with an outstanding writer like Díaz—we’re happy to enter it.

Sanders doesn’t seem interested in self-definition. His stories are more like the diverse planets of a solar system than the continents of an intricately imagined world. You never quite know what’s coming next, but relinquishing the work of self-definition allows Sanders more room to simply play. He slips into a new mode as easily as if he were slipping into a new suit.

Yet despite the different forms, a necessary gravity holds the collection together: Sanders’s excellent prose. No matter the style (or length) of the story, the sharp language and precise image-making give No Animals We Could Name surprising cohesiveness. In one story, a woman’s long hair is “a rainbow-black snake.” In another, cats released from a bedroom “smoke” past a character’s ankles. The octopus hit by a baseball bat in “Flounder” sounds like “an apple the size of a chair being struck by an ax.”

In the more impressionistic of Sanders’s tales, the names of characters tend to fall away. They’re referred to only as “the man” or “the boy” or “the woman” or “the bear.” Sometimes a character’s only identifier is a pronoun, as in the story “The Lion”:

She sews him from her daughter’s bedsheets. They are camel, and though she has never seen a camel, she has seen the lion at the zoo, and she knows that parts of him are this color. She makes the careful, clumsy stitches around the whole childish shape of him, sometimes tugging her red thread too smartly, then fussing back to smooth puckers she’s pulled into the cloth.

The anaphoristic repetition of pronouns, in the hands of a lesser writer, could become gimmicky. But for Sanders, the repetitions move past the emphatic, into the liturgical. The prose gains the kind of cadence you’d hear in a Catholic Mass (or in Gertrude Stein), and, in turn, the story develops a kind of theology—even when its subject is a bedsheet lion that a woman believes has come to life.

By the end of the collection Sanders extends those repetitions to their limits in the final story, “Assembly.” The man building a machine isn’t just “the man,” as in previous stories, he gets to keep his full name—Peter Lumley—which Sanders relentlessly repeats:

Peter Lumley assembles the machine.

The parts of the machine gleam silver and smooth. Their edges run sharp and clean. When Peter Lumley holds any one of them in his hand, its weight surprises him. They assume the size of chestnuts, fingers, pushpins, peas.

Peter Lumley builds a machine that utters his name.

“Peter Lumley” repeats over and over, like a charm or a prayer. It repeats so often the words conjure a second Peter Lumley into existence. The two Peter Lumleys build a new machine together, in the shape of—of course—Peter Lumley. The right-justification of the story seems an odd choice. But “Assembly,” though one of the more unusual works from the collection, sounds an appropriately concluding note. Sanders pushes the story to its natural boundaries, then gently brings the book to a close.

There isn’t big, narrative payoff at the end of No Animals We Could Name. The pleasure of the collection comes from guessing what Sanders will do next, then watching him accomplish, with artful grace, exactly what you weren’t expecting.

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