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Book Review

Somerville spins tales of the future and end

Stories are smart, witty, surreal

By Joseph Peschel
Globe Correspondent / November 20, 2010

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You may recognize Patrick Somerville as the author of “The Cradle,’’ a realistic and often comical exploration of contemporary fatherhood. Little in that novel would prepare for you the amazing stories in Somerville’s second story collection, “The Universe in Miniature in Miniature.’’ These tales are mostly speculative fiction-science fiction, surrealism, absurdism, and fantasy blended into a metafictional continuum.

In his linked sketches, vignettes, and full-blown stories, Somerville’s characters like to quote or allude to Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, characters straight out of Tolkien’s fantasies, but they also read Coleridge and Salinger. Characters, institutions, and techno gadgets from one story sometimes recur in another. Nevertheless, the stories are chiefly connected by theme: how we cope with pain, fear, death, and how the world works and how it might end. Somerville offers these topics in smart, often humorous techno-geekish ways.

The best stories are the full-blown tales. In the title piece, Dylan and Rosie, students at SSTD (School of Surreal Thought and Design), help Lucy with her project about pain: surveilling an invalid to “observe the wholesale collapse of a family following major trauma.’’ Dylan is writing a novel about scientists who, while trying to develop the perfect carbonated beverage, destroy the world. Rosie’s project is making a miniature of a boy making a miniature of the solar system.

Dark on one side, afire on the other, the Earth has stopped spinning in “The Sun,’’ and people doubt that normalcy will ever return. Fear and pain drive the magic in “Vaara in the Woods.’’ A soon-to-be-father dreams about a magical ox that returns from the dead as a monstrous ox-man and attacks the narrator’s ancestors and metaphorically his own baby.

“Hair University’’ shows us how far people will go to fend off aging. Danny, a successful sci-fi writer and former SSTD student, lends $85,000 to his hard-up friend Phil for a dangerous hair treatment involving gene therapy that will not only stop baldness but will re-grow hair. The risk: full-body disintegration.

Danny mentions he’s the author of a short story about aliens too stupid to fly their own ship. It’s the very next story, “Confused Aliens,’’ a humorous look at what aliens and their leaders might really be like — very like ourselves and our leaders.

The brightest thing in Somerville’s universe of stellar stories is “The Machine of Understanding Other People,’’ a witty and ironic four-part novella. A down-and-out drunk and former lawyer from Chicago, Tom Sanderson, and a social worker from London, Eliza Dagonet, are heirs to the fortune of their lost aristocratic uncle Herman. The eccentric Herman had lived in a well-furnished cave with a door, “not unlike hobbits.’’ The cave, lit by track lights and cooled with central air-conditioning, has furniture fashioned from stones, an organic sort of architecture that’s a fantastical mix of Taliesin West and a hobbit home. Herman’s money, castles, and cave go to Eliza. The machine, actually a helmet, goes to Tom. Eliza’s Grandma Beatrice, a scientist, designed the helmet as a weapon during World War II. When a person wears the helmet, he can simply point a stick to merge into the consciousness of others.

One story, reminiscent of 1970s experimentalism with the typeface placement, failed to resonate, but the rest twinkle. Somerville has vast talent for invention and a flair for writing in a variety of voices, whether his character is a young female, a middle-aged male, or an alien. All in all in all, this is a remarkable and fun-to-read collection.

Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at joe@josephpeschel.com or through his website at josephpeschel.com.

THE UNIVERSE IN MINIATURE IN MINIATURE By Patrick Somerville

Featherproof, 304 pp., $14.95