Robin McLean’s debut collection of short stories moves seamlessly from adultery to kidnapping, from assassination plots to extreme geothermal events, all in a voice that is spare and darkly poetic
Robin McLean, Reptile House, BOA Editions, 2015.
The characters in these nine short stories abandon families, plot assassinations, nurse vendettas, tease, taunt, and terrorize. They retaliate for bad marriages, dream of weddings, and wait decades for lovers. How far will we go to escape to a better dream? What consequences must we face for hope and fantasy? Robin McLean's stories are strange, often disturbing and funny, and as full of foolishness and ugliness as they are of the wisdom and beauty all around us.
I once sat on a loveseat for several nights in a row, watching a multipart PBS documentary on emotions. What I recall most vividly from this documentary is an experiment conducted on Jason, a young man with Asperger’s syndrome. As he watched a movie, Jason wore a pair of special glasses that allowed researchers to see exactly what he was looking at on the screen. In this way, they could see how Jason processed visual data, and how he created a kind of hierarchy of significance. One scene featured a dramatic and emotional encounter in the foreground—a man and woman, I think, embracing, kissing, whispering endearments—but Jason, as it turns out, was watching the very interesting chandelier in the background. I don’t mean to hard-heartedly ignore or make light of what the experiment reveals about Asperger’s syndrome, but it strikes me that there is an apt analogy here to fiction. This is what good writers do—come at drama indirectly, reverse foreground and background, disrupt conventional priorities, focus on and draw our attention to the “wrong” data. I was reminded of the chandelier when reading the remarkable stories in Robin McLean’s collection, Reptile House. There is no shortage of mayhem and menace in these stories, but they achieve a thrilling and disorienting power by refusing to pay commensurate attention to the life-and-death troubles of people. McLean does not shrink the world down to interpersonal conflict, but instead opens it up to achieve a cosmic perspective that somehow feels both dispassionate and compassionate (Chekhov’s trick). This opening up is wild, surprising, and not a little frightening. I suppose you could call these stories dark, but in their dazzling perspective I find them full of vitality and wonder. —Chris Bachelder
"Tonally and structurally, these marvelous stories have no discernable influences. In her debut collection Robin McLean emerges as a writer with singular voice and vision. I admire this book immoderately, and I hope that readers will find it." - Chris Bachelder
Robin McLean's fiction is harrowing and wry and compassionate, and always both fiercely rooted in the world and fearlessly willing to take chances. I love her keen sense of our inherent strangeness, and her heartening sense of just how important it is that we never stop trying to close the gap between who are and who we aspire to be." - Jim Shepard
"I haven't read a book this dark and frank and sublimely written in a while. Maybe since Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men." - Alden Jones
McLean’s debut collection of short stories moves seamlessly from adultery to kidnapping, from assassination plots to extreme geothermal events, all in a voice that is spare and darkly poetic. In “Cold Snap,” recent divorcée Lilibeth struggles with isolation as her small town is consumed by one of the coldest winter spells in history. In “The True End to All Sad Times,” a man’s unhealthy obsession with a former high school classmate leads to an equally unhealthy infatuation with the driver of the bus the man rides every evening. In the title story, Carl fantasizes about abandoning his life while sitting in the recovery room after the birth of his child. McLean’s characters are lonely in their marriages, isolated from the world around them, and not generally given happy endings. What this book does offer, however, is strangely realistic glimpses into conflicts that are equal parts surreal and hyper-realistic, rendered by a voice that gracefully juxtaposes terse reportage and lyrical insight. The result is a taut volume that explores the fate of the dashed dreamer, offering charming insights into the untidy worlds of people who are not where they thought they’d be. - Publishers Weekly
Characters struggle to control slivers of their fates in the nine stories of McLean’s debut.
McLean’s protagonists are stuck. Carl of “Reptile House” doesn’t love his wife or his newborn child. Lilibeth of “Cold Snap” is literally frozen as her town experiences record-low temperatures. On the heels of a divorce, she reads self-improvement books and attempts to fix up her home, all while actively denying the dire situation: “Don’t believe this empty town,” she reminds herself. “This coldest cold. This Death of the World.” In “No Name Creek” we meet Ben, cast in the shadow of his older brother, Boak. McLean has a knack for stunning sentences that resonate with her characters’ circumstances. While peeing “twin arcs” next to a tree, Ben hears Boak tease him and looks up at the mountains. Ben notes, “The peaks jabbed at the sky and the sky just sat there and took it.” The third-person narrators frequently zoom out, locating the present moment within a cosmic frame. The effect is tragicomic; we witness the immense futility of characters’ lives. When Lilibeth washes her hair, for instance, we follow the water “down her forehead to sink to drain through pipes to tank to leach field, then down, down through pebbles and rocks in layers, between faults toward magma, only to steam up again, spit out someday, maybe some geyser, some national park with buffalo romping and children. Anyway, her hair was clean.” McLean incorporates organizational structures in a few stories: a list of rules in “For Swimmers” and excerpts from handbooks and checklists in “Blue Nevus.” These structures clutter the narrative slightly, taking away from the prose, which shines on its own.
McLean stages yearning and stasis with poignancy and wit. - Kirkus Reviews
To call Robin McLean a storyteller is technically correct but misses the point of her work; McLean doesn’t write stories so much as she writes about them. To this end, her short fiction collection Reptile House examines the malleability of character and plot, as well as how this might be used to subvert the conventions of the genre. Moreover, she wants her readers to actively engage with the characters instead of being passive consumers of narrative. The result is a dazzling debut that signals the arrival of one of fiction’s most compelling new voices.
The collection’s opening story, “Cold Snap,” in which a young woman struggles to maintain a sense of normalcy amid a winter of near-dystopian proportions, establishes a tone that is both gritty and playful:
As the glaciers moved south toward the Capitol, some high points and valleys were spared. Ice slipped around them, while the rising sea pressed the coastlines. Planes dropped from the sky, no one knew why. Engineers volunteered from the private sector. They repaired and upgraded. They drilled for heat in the earth, hot water or steam, to turn the turbines. It was proven science, but the crews were stressed and components untested. Reactor waters were ice rinks boiling in the middles when the sea crawled up over boardwalks and streets, consuming bike paths and smashing hot-dog stands against shopping districts and schools.
Despite the description of the brutal weather, McLean isn’t asking us to sympathize with the characters here, certainly not with our protagonist Lilibeth, who is on the upswing of a divorce. Rather, she wants us to consider what sympathy for a character actually means. It would be easy to let a story like this devolve into some maudlin post-relationship tragedy wherein the reader is strong-armed into pitying Lilibeth. But Lilibeth doesn’t view herself as a victim; in fact, she’s almost comically indifferent to her circumstances, navigating her life with a calm matter-of-factness that belies the weather’s threat:
It felt colder in town than at her house. She stamped her boots and hugged her arms. It felt much colder. She marveled at this impression. How real it seemed, how actual, factual, reliable, true. How apparently based on sensory perception, the nerves in the face, for example, the capillaries of the ears when the hat flew off and tumbled away. The pain in the lungs, deep breaths required for catching the hat, for leaping a drift.
All of which raises an important question, one to which more writers should give consideration: what do we as readers actually hope to take from our characters, and what does this suggest about us? It’s one of the main themes in the book that McLean continues to explore in stories such as “Take the Car Take the Girl,” in which a friendly dinner gathering yields the kind of character revelations one might expect from Carver or O’Connor, and “For Swimmers,” which details a love triangle decades in the making. For all of the tragedy that these characters endure, McLean insists that we not feel sorry for them but that we examine the concept of tragedy objectively. Take, for example, “Blue Nevus,” which takes its name from the caterpillar-shaped mole on the arm of our central character, Roger Cotton. Despite the concerns of his gym compatriots Roger remains aloof, his regard for his health secondary to what the blue nevus suggests about modernity. “The Middle Ages was a better time to live,” he considers. “Life spans were shorter and more defined. Smallpox and Black Plague took people quickly regardless of sin or previous health.”
The methodical feel to the stories in Reptile House speaks to McLean’s intimate understanding of form. Perhaps more important, however, is her interest in finding ways to undermine the strictures of form. For example, in our title story when the main character is witnessing the birth of his child:
“Carl, cut the cord,” [his wife] said.
“Cut the cord,” he repeated, and set a hand on the knee.
Carl had done it for the others and this, he felt, was more than his share. The other kids were tucked in and away for a few days at her sister’s spread in Winnetka, not far from his parents’ old farm. His own modest house off Cicero, just southwest of downtown, was enticingly empty tonight, all five windows to the street, three on top and two on each side of the red door, would be dark. He hoped to get home tonight and sleep in some big empty bed, in all that still and lonesome.
Here our protagonist’s warped sense of priority establishes a very clear conflict while also emblemizing McLean’s knack for portraying characters as researchers observing their own lives as a kind of experiment, turning the mundane into something extraordinary. Time and again, McLean uncovers a kind of beauty in the ordinary, a sense of wonder in the everyday objects and events that might otherwise fly entirely below our radar.
Much of this has to do with the prose, which is sharp and concise and tinged with a poetic flare. In the same vein as authors such as Amy Hempel and Ben Fountain, McLean works predominantly on the sentence level, ensuring that each paragraph resounds with meaning and metaphor. More than once I found myself lingering on a line or passage, admiring its elegant rhythm, like in “No Name Creek,” when McLean writes, “The peaks jabbed at the sky and the sky just sat there and took it.” Or in “The True End to All Sad Times,” when we are told that hate “is like a rock in the dirt that a guy finds when he digs deep enough with a shovel.”
McLean’s insistence that readers engage with each story as its own object, examining the sizes and shapes and textures and dimensions, points to her steadfast command of language. And in most cases this works, though once or twice I did find myself frustrated at some of the stories’ insularity. That’s not to say that every creative choice she makes needs to broadcast its function to the reader (and to be honest, I sort of hate when authors do this). But why, for instance, was “Blue Nevus” organized with subheadings from the handbook of a space agency? Why do so many of McLean’s characters seem so reluctant feel anything? It’s as if the author is so concerned the stories will slip into contrivance that she is overcompensating by withholding critical details that could make them even richer.
But these instances were hardly enough to spoil the entire book for me. In fact, to a large degree the mystery here made the reading experience that much more rewarding, because I am still thinking about these stories, still turning those objects over in my head like the strange but stunning artifacts of someone else’s life. And that, I suppose, is Reptile House’s most impressive accomplishment: for better or worse, it is the kind of book that stays with you long after you’ve finished it, begging to be revisited over and over again. - Jeremy Griffin
Robin McLean’s story collection, Reptile House, opens at an end—when a freeze of apocalyptic proportions devastates the town of Easter, (“Cold Snap”)—and ends at a beginning—when an unhappy man’s wife gives birth to another baby (the title story). This sort of upset runs rampant throughout McLean’s debut work. McLean’s surreal tales about ordinary characters deliver emotional truth in poetic language. Concrete and surreal, they spill beyond the conventional short story forms.
A book for lovers of language, Reptile House won the 2015 BOA Short Story Fiction Prize, sponsored by BOA Editions, Ltd., a publishing house committed strictly to poetry, until 2007 when it launched its American Reader Series with the goal of publishing fiction “more concerned with artfulness of writing than the twists and turns of plot.” Indeed, the nine short stories that form Reptile House seem to spring from language in an intuitive way.
This passage from “No Name Creek,” a story in which two brothers, Ben and Boak, head out to hunt moose on the last day of the season is a primer in the way Mclean’s stories feed off language on multiple levels. Ben, the narrator who happens to be a poet, tells a complex story of lost love and fraternal competition by defining simple words:
Hand: a necessary appendage….
Poem: a set of words put together to say something that can’t be said. Ben once slid one in Sue’s mailbox in his best pretty longhand, but Ben’s longhand and Boak’s longhand were perfect twins.
Mix-up: a mess that causes the wrong or undesired result, brought about by fear or happiness or love or an absent mind or poor penmanship.
Sue: pretty, sweet, nice, sets her chin on her knuckles while listening. Gap-toothed. Holds her head while laughing hard.
Mix-up: a terrible mess brought about by poems. Boak won that won too. Boak always won.
“Wins what?” said Boak.
“Nothing,” said Ben.
“How the world is declining,” Boak said. They shook their heads at injustice. The brothers walked on, sweated and walked. They heard gunfire the next drainage over and walked faster.
Leg: a necessary appendage, needing another.Ben’s definition of leg, which circles back to his definition of hand, also refers to the brothers’ dependence on each other, despite Ben’s pain since Boak married Sue.
McLean’s language is generally more elusive and intricate than this particular example suggests. Her usually omniscient narrators often express themselves in stream-of-consciousness. They are contemplatives, dreamers and fantasizers, historians and fable-tellers. They know both the future and the past.
In “The Amazing Discovery and Natural History of Carlsbad Caverns,” first published in The Common, Mel and Mike, two volatile young soldiers who are due to ship out to Vietnam, drink all night, procure a pistol, kidnap, and kill a local cab driver before going AWOL in the desert. This plot, which includes the chase and attack of a vulnerable woman and random details, like the fate of Mike’s belt—(“But the belt was gone forever, kicked under the bar by a girl’s pink heel, never to be discovered by anyone ever, although a long-handled broom will almost grab it next Easter.”)—is ample material for a short story, but “The Amazing Discovery…” also incorporates a mysterious and magical sombrero, cavern folklore, the bedtime stories about a cowboy named Jim that the cabbie tells his four children—complete stories in themselves—history, fantasy, magical realism, the afterlife and even the beforelife, when the cabbie’s cave tales merge with the main narrative:
Way back, this desert was an inland sea. These mountains were coral reefs with caves big enough to fit a town. The reef hugged the eastern shore, eel and sharks, the sponges and urchin had children who grew up and had children who died on the reef and it rose up fine and tall with all their corpses.The paragraph continues, intertwining geology with the the cabbie’s daughter losing her tooth and a Cowboy Jim episode.
Jim rubbed his leg in the dark, the real dark, and a real leg with a real boot on the end of it. This desert was once an inland sea and Gloria tripped on the foot of the table. Just a little sprite. Of course, there was blood, the girl had cried, but Jim had groped the ground and found her tooth. Time passed, ten million years. Jim dipped the tooth in the pail until clean, the roots of the tooth were exactly like a screw. He held her head between his knees, the small glorious head, one million years passed, and the reef busted out lean and sharp, those mountains there, brown and pretty, a girl’s round belly, round as a melon on account of breakfast, and screwed that tooth back in her head…
The cab cut east some miles. The moon set. The searchlights lay down. The cab halted nose up on a dune that looked exactly like a cresting wave. Mel got out and kicked the tires. Mike sang a marching tune, the stars faded to a slice of sun.
“Get out and dance,” Mel said.Such juxtapositions of epic and human-scale elements define McLean’s work and ambition as much as her innovative prose. While “The Amazing Discovery…” is the most complex of these stories, “Rabbit’s Foot,” in which William, the youngest and favored brother of seven, becomes entangled in a rooftop bar fight while defending his older brother, is perhaps the most accessible. It begins:
“Fight on the roof!” A steel door slammed above.
Tommy clapped his hands. “Let’s go.” He jumped two steps at a time and Billy followed skipping three steps at a time up the stairwell to the roof party.
The fight was more of a skirmish: two guys, one girl, someone’s dog. It was mostly played out by the time Tommy and Billy slammed through the door. The contestants were still chest-to-chest at the burn barrel.
As the evening wears on, another fight develops. This time Tommy and Billy are in the middle of it, and McLean shifts to her poetic voice to encapsulate the story’s tragic elements.
…Then Billy fell.
A satellite circling within earth’s gravity is falling the whole time.
He fell for an hour, equals forty boys back-to-back, or twelve girls with some pleasure.
The air was nice. The snow slapped his chin.
A fly is the lowest thing always repenting.
A siren for a meteor a mile wide crossing Polish gibberish.
“Billy!”“Rabbit’s Foot” concludes:
The snow will be one hundred feet deep, I promise, silky like flour.
Brothers with nets, yes.
Dragon girls, yes.
The headline: Miracle Boy.
No cornfield or cow.
Super Bill, Sweet William.
Out of my way.It’s risky work, and it succeeds better in some stories than others. In “Take the Car Take the Girl,” a wife seeks revenge on her cheating husband by arranging to steal his new and much adored car and give it to a busboy who’s caught her attention one night in a restaurant. The story is told in a close third-person point of view that shifts four-fifths of the way through the story, abandoning the wife, Tweedy, and the story of her complicated and troubled marriage in which the reader has become invested to escort the busboy into his future with the stolen car. Unfortunately, his story isn’t nearly as interesting as Tweedy’s, making for an unsatisfying conclusion that reads like the author got lost.
For the most part, however, McLean knows exactly where she’s going and takes care to ground her stories in realistic settings and vivid scenes. For instance, “Cold Snap,” the apocalyptic opening story concerns a woman, Lilibeth, who rebuilds her world after the emotional freeze of divorce and the climate freeze. The story begins:
In December, the valley cars barely turned over. Batteries died. Blankets were coiled on the sills of frosted windows, tacked over ill-fitting doors. Wood split with the tap of an axe. The ice on the lake was three feet thick, then five, then seven, then the auger froze. When the wind died down, the townsfolk had parties on the lake below the Ledges, the deepest part of the lake, so warmest water, so best fishing. The fish huts all huddled together. The friends built fires in the middle of pallets with brush hauled out in trucks parked behind the huts. The fire was taller than the roofs. It leaned with the wind. They drank hot drinks with gloves, red noses at rims, leaned away from the lick of the flame….”
The miseries of McLean’s characters throughout the collection are also familiar: Lilibeth is recovering from divorce; another woman’s lover won’t leave his wife; a man is obsessed with his high school crush.
Snappy, realistic dialogue further helps the reader relate to Reptile House’s characters and infuses McLean’s epic themes and compressed prose with a welcome humor. As the “The Amazing Discovery…” approaches the tragic climax, which the story has been promising and threatening, since its opening paragraph—“Mel could get Mike to do anything,” this is the dialogue McLean attributes to the intoxicated soldiers:
“My dad’s in the field by now. He’s fighting with that plow.”
“He’ll get a dog.”
“What good’s a dog?”
“Dogs are fine.”
Mike drank the last of the bottle and threw it out onto the sand.
“A nice home for some bug or a mouse,” Mike said.
“They’ll cook in that bottle by noon,” said Mel. “Some friend you are.”
“Jungle men cook bugs and mice from the mud in a bottle,” said Mike.
The cactus gave way to the tires and grill. The cab lunged and weaved through the sand.
Mike and Mel have forced the driver dangerously deep into the desert, nearing the legendary Carlsbad caverns—“the blackest hole you ever saw.” This banter belies the gravity of the situation. They, too, could be cooked by noon under the heat of the desert sun.
McLean’s collection concludes with, and takes its title from, “Reptile House.” When Carl’s wife gives birth to another child, Carl, apathetic in his marriage, goes through the motions of cutting the cord and tending to his wife in the hospital, while fantasizing about zipping “out of his skin,” escaping to another life. That’s when he recalls an incident at the zoo’s Reptile House, when a 12-foot python swallowed whole the second snake in the cage.
To the guys at work he described how the final snake had two tails for a while, one pointing each direction, the gaping mouth in the middle, the brown tail flapping then still. Gulped shorter and shorter until gone. This was odd to see.
The zookeepers had said of the incident: “Unnatural, unprecedented, as far as we know.”They could just as well be describing this collection. - Chantal Corcoran
"Robin McLean writes in wonderful cascades of language. Her characters are carried along by those cascades, often unwittingly. Sometimes, as with the two young men in “No Name Creek,” they are carried to a happy end. More often, they seem to be, like Lilibeth in “Cold Snap,” overtaken by events beyond their control. Characters’ own words, often inept or pathetic in light of their situations, offer ironic counterpoint. Much is laughable in these stories. Don’t be deceived. Through her sly wit and humor, Robin McLean is luring readers into deeper questions." - Frank Soos