The Universe in Miniature in Miniature

By Patrick Somerville

Featherproof Books
November 2010
304 pages


Reviewed by Johannes Lichtman


In Patrick Somerville's The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, the earth is dying, the world stops turning, and people evaporate, disintegrate, self-destruct, break apart and disappear with great regularity. Throughout this hybrid collection of narratives—the author mixes short stories and a novella with short shorts and visual art—it is not the darkness that his characters are mired in that intrigues Somerville so much as what they do to get out of it.

In "No Sun," Joseph, a recovering drug addict, prepares to flee the Midwestern city of Grayson after the earth's revolution comes to an abrupt halt and half the planet (his half) is frozen in darkness. Joseph remains relatively optimistic about the future, even though it looks as though humanity may be ending (photosynthesis is a potential problem; also, the other half of the world may be on fire): "All around I was reacting well to apocalypse, frankly." But as a former drug addict who has almost killed himself with his habit, he knows what people are capable of. He wants to get away from Grayson and flee to his cabin in the woods before all hell breaks loose. Sara, the girl he is seeing, feels ambivalent about leaving Grayson and embarking on a new life with Joseph, "She was faced with the prospect of never being apart from me again. We had been dating for five weeks. She was scared." Once they leave the city, Joseph is forced into a brutal decision that seems more at home in Cormac McCarthy's version of the apocalypse than Douglas Adams's, but, despite all the darkness, Joseph and Sara manage to salvage what is left of their lives out in the woods.

Then there is "People Like Me," a story of a retired mercenary who attends an anger management class at the behest of his fed-up wife:

I asked [my wife] if she honestly thought me talking to some people in a high school gymnasium about, oh, I don't know, bayoneting (in the face) the man who jumped on me from the roof of a bungalow in Hyderabad was really going to make a difference. Will that unburden me? I asked. She said Yes, it might help.

The charming part about this predicament, and many of the nightmarish predicaments in this collection, is that there is always something that might help. "Nothing is stuck," the former mercenary says, struggling with rage, loneliness, hallucinations, and a former colleague trying to rope him back into the killing life. "I have to believe that. You are never trapped."

In the title story—one of my favorite stories to come out in the past few years—students at the School of Surreal Thought and Design in Chicago work at long, unsupervised projects that they are not sure anyone will ever see. The headquarters of the SSTD are located in a series of subterranean tunnels under a bakery; interaction with faculty is infrequent, to say the least.

The narrator, Rose, goes through a personal and artistic crisis as she helps her friend Lucy with "The Machine of Understanding Other People." Lucy hopes to understand other people by "observ[ing] the wholesale collapse of a family following major trauma." The family is the Conrads. When their son, Ryan Conrad, slipped and fell one day, he suffered severe brain damage and went from being "a free-spirited law student" to "an invalid incapable of dressing himself." Lucy places spy cameras around the Conrad's home, and she and Rose sit outside the house every night in a surveillance van, watching the family. Rose worries that Lucy's project is cruel, though Lucy insists that they "aren't watching to see if he will die": she is just trying to understand the Conrads. Still, Rose has her doubts. Lucy is in love with Ryan Conrad.

Though the story may sound like merely a clever piece of postmodernism that pokes fun at the foibles of artists trying to be artists, Somerville takes it to a much richer level by making the artists abandon their art in favor of human interaction. They must leave the van and visit the Conrads. As Lucy is working on The Machine of Understanding Other People, Rose agonizes over her own project: building miniature models of fathers and sons building miniature models of the solar system together. Building the solar system in miniature—or "the universe in miniature" as one character calls it—can be seen as a tongue-in-cheek way of looking at writing fiction about artists, where the author creates a miniature universe in which the characters themselves create miniature universes. Critics of this kind of literature bemoan the insularity of writing about artists—especially writing about writers—but why wouldn't a writer want to build a universe so alive that its inhabitants are building their own universes?

Somerville's stories tend to follow people who want to create new worlds. Whether it is a rehabilitated mercenary, a recovering drug addict, a lovesick med student, a high school biology teacher with "just enough imagination to make great failure possible," or the idealistic social worker at the center of the swashbuckling novella, "The Machine of Understanding Other People," Somerville's characters exude a sense of hope and determination. The Universe in Miniature in Miniature is an organic collection of feel-good apocalyptic surrealism, a very strange set of stories that are as scary and sad as they are funny and touching.