This Is Not Your City

By Caitlin Horrocks

Sarabande Books
July 2011
168 pages


Reviewed by Deirdra McAfee


So many contemporary stories take place in white people's houses, a landscape in which women figure importantly, though not necessarily admirably. This setting and subject, once dismissed as "domestic fiction," is now Fiction About Relationships, and is officially OK, because, despite strong competition from The Immigrant Story, publishers believe it finds readers.

Three of the stories in Caitlin Horrocks's debut collection This Is Not Your City exemplify that setting's limitations, the same limitations shackling American short fiction at the moment: "It Looks Like This," a heavy-handed and shallow look at female poverty in rural Ohio; the unpleasant "Zero Conditional," a mean-teacher story that reads like a bad imitation of Barthelme's "The School" (and that uses an inaccurate grammar-point as a plot device); and "The World Champion Cow of the Insane," in which visits to weird museums fail to  shape an aimless story.

These unrealized tales, however, point beyond themselves to show how Horrocks escapes or subverts the claustrophobic stage-set of family life: she structures her stories with landmarks, real or imaginary. "Embodied" accompanies an accountant through previous existences, while "Steal Small" takes us along with a pair of southeast Missouri dog-thieves. "Zolaria," one of the collection's most striking stories, incorporates an Ann Arbor neighborhood, and the ports of call on an African cruise organize the other outstanding story, "In the Gulf of Aden, Past the Cape of Gardafui."

These landmarks, real aspects of the outer world, break into the characters' inner worlds and force dramatic changes in the characters' relationships. In the best stories, this device frees the pieces from the flat diction and recriminatory mood so common in relationship stories, and allows the female protagonists to transcend the household setting's typically dreary givens and shrunken horizons. The maps and lists that drive the stories also force readers beyond their own limits and into the world.

Horrocks is capable of enchantment, too, though this can be bad magic. Here's how "Embodied" opens:

In this, my 127th life, I am… an internal auditor with Wells Fargo. I live in Des Moines, Iowa, in a white, three-bedroom house. I have a husband named Murray, and six months ago I had a baby son named Jacob. I don't have him any more.

The narrator's past lives and relationships, the landmarks here, appear in engaging detail, though some details seem a bit Googled. What happens to Jacob, and why, is only part of the story. A deeper issue concerns the marriage:

…the way I love [my husband] is almost the exact same way in which I loved my wife in China, in 1102 … We enjoyed each other's company and did not expect more than life was likely to provide…  I've never told Murray because I don't want to hurt him, to imply that my love for him is recycled.

An even deeper issue, overlooked by the narrator, of course, is: who believes his wife is sane when she talks, however convincingly, about a thousand years of past lives?

The narrator of "Embodied" is unrepentant, but Lyssa, the narrator of "Steal Small," a story set in the same low-class milieu as the less skillful "It Looks Like This," constructs a life of self-punishment. This story, a clear example of Horrocks's use of the actual to structure her stories, points toward the very successful, but more subtle, approach in "Zolaria."

Lyssa lives an almost implausibly sparse and brutally bare domestic life with her scary boyfriend, Leo, who has a disgusting skin condition. She inflicts all this on herself because she didn't protect her younger sister, Mouse, from the next-door abuser. Lyssa somehow failed to grasp that Mr. Martin routinely molested Mouse inside his garage, rewarding the child with Popsicles. Lyssa's memories of this time punctuate her reflections on her present life.

Lyssa and Leo live outside Neosho, in Newton County (here renamed Neosho County), Missouri. The surrounding towns, including Joplin, Carthage, Lamar, and Webb City, Lyssa and Mouse's hometown, give us the story's territory. Lyssa and Leo's life together gives us a second territory. They make extra cash picking up impounded dogs from the police, pretending to adopt dogs that need new homes, and grabbing strays off the street. They steal small, but they steal. When they accumulate fifteen or so, they sell them in Joplin, to be used for medical and cosmetic testing and then killed. The dogs, and the lies Leo tells, and Lyssa supports, to acquire the dogs, are also landmarks here. A trip to Webb City nets the couple a half-dozen new specimens:

Our house is full of dog bowls, and Muffy wouldn't need toys, but Leo let Mrs. Sidore get them. I held the dog on my lap as we drove away. On the next block… we locked Muffy into a cage with a dish of water and one of the toys… and Leo checked the next house on his list against his map.


Lyssa remains an accessory to destruction, as she was when her little sister went into the cage of Mr. Martin's garage and she kept herself from knowing. Only this time she realizes what's happening. After the poodle, they get "a chocolate Labrador from a couple… moving to a one-bedroom apartment in Kansas City in a week," and an English terrier from

…an old woman whose family was putting her in a nursing home. She tried to serve us tea and… shortbread cookies, but she dropped the cookies into the tea and didn't seem to notice… The dog was skinny, with long nails, like the woman couldn't remember how to take care of it. She kissed Leo on the cheek when he took the terrier into his arms.

Finally, they claim a lost Dalmatian from the family who's found her:

When we pulled away, I had Perdita in my lap. I assumed Leo would pull over… to move her to the back, but he never did. We drove the forty-five minutes home that way, with the dog cradled in my lap, her head out the window, tongue hanging, drooling for joy…

The first night Perdita was caged out back she howled for hours … I couldn't not-hear the way I'm used to. I got out of bed and went outside…  I put my hand on the latch to Perdita's cage. I stood there, just like that, thinking about all the useless things that might happen if I let her go… She howled every night… until Leo came back without her and I slept a little better.

Lyssa can't forgive herself. She deliberately rejects hope and imagination: "So I refuse to wish Leo nice, or the dogs free, or my sister happy, or myself forgiven… I just won't wish them, and then when they all don't happen it won't mean a thing to me." Nevertheless, her page-long deliberation about freeing Perdita, seems to suggest that Lyssa may have reached the end of the road with Leo, that she may yet unlock her own cage.

In the collection's final story, "In the Gulf of Aden, Past the Cape of Guardafui," a vacationing couple yields to their imaginations, although in the end their tales underline rather than change reality:

In Tangier, [Wil and Lucinda Voorhuis] were childless. At sea north of Algiers, the parents of a tuba prodigy. In Tunis, the parents of a daughter whose wedding featured a flock of ice sculptures… They were both indeterminate enough to claim a hedgefund manager, a sweet-smelling infant, America's most promising young speed skater.

Later, Lucinda can't recall whether one of their dinner companions "needed an update on an Olympic bid in handball or the identification of breakages in chromosome 17p13." This breakage afflicts their real child, ten-year-old Aaron, who "had been born with his brain unfurrowed, lissencephalic." The cruise is a "respite" for Lucinda, a break meant to keep her sane, to prevent her from giving in to the temptation to overdose him with anticonvulsants:

He followed things with his eyes, sometimes. He smiled at people who entered his field of vision. He had learned to swallow, eventually, and to roll over unassisted. He was ten years old, and no one had any idea how long he might live.

When Somali pirates overrun the ship, Lucinda "thought she and Wil should volunteer themselves. They were qualified hostages, years of experience." Aaron's birth has indeed held them hostage, but they can't bear to recognize that, or to act on the hopeless reality of his condition. Each one's useless defenses continue, leaving each unknowable to the other, as Aaron is to both of them.

Here's the family story, miles from home: Wil papers over his irresponsibility and denial with jokes and humorous fantasies, and Lucinda, Aaron's caretaker, relies on a prudence and discipline as useless as the water she stockpiles during the pirates' invasion. Lucinda is already captive, without hope of respite or freedom. As the pirates depart and the adventure of the cruise ends, Lucinda asks Wil to stop making up children. The imagined ones only make the real child more inescapable. Though Horrocks frequently, as here, explodes its boundaries, she can't entirely shuck the burden of betrayal and disappointment that makes this kind of story feel "true," but also predictable, even conventional.

Life is full of betrayal and disappointment. It is also full of enchantment and delight, which Horrocks offers generously. But she's still constrained by the contemporary obsession with treachery, ordinariness, flatness, and darkness—the four walls and low ceilings that, unfortunately, make up today's House of Fiction.  We can look forward with great anticipation to what Caitlin Horrocks will do if she gets outside to play.