Matt Rowan of Bob Einstein’s Literary Equations broke my rules when he challenged me to read some contemporary literature, but with a local hook I decided to go with it. Good move: Chicago writer Patrick Somerville’s collection of short stories, The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, couldn’t have impressed me more. The writing is just what I want from contemporary fiction—not anything I can really describe, unfortunately, but it’s good—as is the form of the quasi- or semi-linked short story. And I’m a fan of Somerville’s themes: his humanism, his appreciation of the surreal and dreamlike, and the primacy and all but insuperable difficulty of emotional connection between humans.
In the title story, the first in the collection, a group of three friends is at work together on their projects for the School of Surreal Thought and Design. Right off, it’s important to think of things like “projects” and “schools” very loosely. Dylan’s project is to write a novel, Lucy’s is surveillance of a former classmate in a persistent vegetative state, and the narrator’s is creating a model of the universe in miniature in miniature:
“Do you know,” I say, “how sometimes little boys, for science fairs, decide they want to make a model of the solar system?”
“So they find maybe a basketball and cut it in half for the sun? And then they use, like, a marble for the Earth? And so on? And their dads probably help and it turns into this huge project with cardboard and rope and everything? And how maybe sometimes the dad even says to the little boy, ‘You know, Timmy, if we really wanted to be accurate about this model we’d have to drive five whole miles away to properly include Uranus,’ and the kid is totally into it? Like his mind is blown by the scale?”
“Yeah,” says Kevin. I know about that.”
“I make models of that.”
“Cool,” he says. “Wait. Of what, now?”
“I make models of little boys and sometimes their father making models of the solar system.”
Poor Kevin then goes on to ask if this is the narrator’s job. “Kinda,” she tells him. But it’s also just a project, a school project, for a school that isn’t all that real, or at least doesn’t give any degrees or certificates, but for which the students seem to take their projects awfully seriously. The three friends hang out in their surveillance van, watching and listening to the Conrad family taking care of their son Ryan. Dylan finishes his novel. The narrator ends up visiting the SSTD and finding it even more bizarre and unexpected than it would have seemed already. And soon she has a new project, encouraging Lucy to make genuine contact with Ryan and his mother.
In this way Somerville takes a path from alienation to emotional connection via whimsy and unreality. Not all the stories are connected in terms of taking place in the same fictional world (or are they?), but for the ones that are—let’s call them based on the Pangea-world—this is a key concept.
The basis of the Pangea-world is made clear, as much as that is possible, in the final story of the collection, “The Machine of Understanding Other People.” Tom, a middle-aged American divorcé, and Eliza, a mid-twenties English social worker who has yet to spend any time in what we would call much of the “real world,” both find out a long-lost uncle has died. They must meet with his lawyer to gain their inheritance, which Eliza knows about already but Tom does not. She’s going to walk away with a few billion dollars. He gets a helmet.
No, no, not a helmet. It’s the Machine of Understanding Other People. Eliza’s grandmother invented it during World War II, as some kind mysterious secret weapon (it was never used as such). While Eliza knows what she’s supposed to do with the cash—“design an institution whose sole purpose was to prevent the destruction of the world,” then build it—Tom has no idea what to do with the contraption he’s awarded and wants no part of it.
Eliza’s project is Pangea, a university for adults to take classes in anything and everything and just do projects. The whole thing is based on whimsy; a footnote lists several of the “departments and programs at Pangea U,” including The Department of Meaningless Projects, Anti-Gravity Fucking, Sweetness, Cetacean Role-Play, Understanding Joy, Giving Gifts, Gifts, and Gift Giving. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that the School of Surreal Thought and Design is also a program. It turns out that the world at large isn’t so fond of whimsy, though, and Eliza nearly destroys herself trying to save the world. That’s when Tom will find out why he has this awful machine.
And it is awful, because it works. That’s right, you put a helmet on your head, point an antenna at someone, and boom, you’re inside their head. You experience what they’re experiencing, feel their memories, and have some effect on them as well. And this changes the world in both a smaller and a much larger way than Pangea.
Eliza’s mother created the machine by reducing poetry down to its most distilled essence. The machine of understanding other people is already in your hands, at least one version of it. Patrick Somerville has put it there and he hasn’t done a half-bad job.