If you were to ask Manuel Gonzales, as I did, the tense in which this sentence is written, he might chuckle and tell you that he’s not so good with grammatical terms. He might suggest that it’s the past conditional, or the pluperfect indicative. And you might think to yourself that as awkward and affected as it reads in a non-fiction article like this one, it’s really damn riveting when Gonzales uses it in his short story “Farewell, Africa”, a pseudo-“Talk of The Town” piece about a speech written to commemorate the sinking of the African continent. And you would know, of course, that his story was fiction, but when reading certain passages, it would feel quite (embarrassingly?) similar to something you’d find in a glossy magazine piece, especially in this passage about a pool designed by the installation artist Harold Cornish to commemorate the lost continent: “The pool, which he has named The Pool of African Despair Pool, is his first commissioned work and is the first work he has constructed as a memorial. It is also the smallest work he has designed since leaving art school, and it is the first piece of his to utilize hydraulics.”
Almost all of the eighteen stories in The Miniature Wife, Gonzales’ debut collection, have some tweak in the reality of their worlds such that they might be classified as science fiction if not for the banal domesticity that surround their quirks. In the title story, a scientist accidentally shrinks his wife down to the size of a coffee mug. She retaliates by killing their pet bird and booby-trapping the house. In “All Of Me”, a cubicle worker is tormented by his love for the receptionist, because, being a zombie, he’s afraid he might eat her. “Animal House” follows a young couple squatting in a house overrun with ducks, squirrels, feral cats and furry brown swamp rodents called nutrias (“which didn’t sound like the name of an animal so much as a sinus medicine”). And in “One-Horned & Wild-Eyed”, two suburban dads suffering from middle-aged despair are reinvigorated when one of them buys a unicorn from “a Chinaman.”
Peppered throughout are pieces written as non-fiction: a series of obituaries for livers of “meritorious lives”; a profile of an artist who speaks out of his ears; an account of two defamed archaeologists that fabricated the existence of an indigenous tribe, and the unassuming grad student who uncovers the scam. Voice varies from story to story, but Gonzales’ prose maintains a sharp degree of understatement, allowing character and plot to really pop off the page (“We had spent the past hour burying the body and were on our way to grab a hamburger,” begins one piece about a pair of hapless hit men). Writers of literary fiction often get squeamish about the word “funny,” as though to be funny but not a “biting social critic and observer of the human condition” is a way of knocking their merit. But to make a reader really laugh seems to require such a command of *cough* how human emotion works, it could only be high praise to say that The Miniature Wife is very, very funny.
And if you were to interview Gonzales, as I did, about wildlife, his home state of Texas, and zombies vs. unicorns, he’d give you these responses.
I didn’t know what nutrias were until one Christmas, I went back to visit my parents [in Plano, TX] and there were nutrias in the creek that’d never been there when I was growing up.
They are, they’re weird. And their name is weird . . . and there’s a guy—somewhere in Louisiana—who’s doing this invasive species cooking, and he has this nutria stew. Which sounds really unappetizing.
Does he describe the flavor of the meat?
I read an excerpt of an essay about it [in Men’s Journal], and the guy said it tastes about like you’d expect. Just kind of bland, but still kind of greasy.
Where in Texas have you lived?
The Dallas area, Houston, Austin, and Paris, Texas.
And you’ve seen the movie?
We watched it before we moved to Paris, and then we were like, whoa, Paris is just the name, and the Polaroid that guy Stanton carries around. And the more you think about it—that Polaroid represents a better life, the opportunity of which he’s missed. And you’re like, that is a really sad notion of what you better life would be.
There’s been some talk in the newspaper about secession—if Texas leaves, what’s your plan?
There was a lot of talk about Texas seceding right after college [in the late 90s], and one of the guys that I worked with at a bookstore in Austin was like, “Go ahead Texas. Secede, and then within a month you’ll be the largest state in Mexico.” There’s a minority of people [who think Texas will secede], but back in the day they were also the people who believed that if Texas seceded, then shortly after it would be revealed that Texas had this new gas formula that would be able to drive you across the state on a gallon of this special Republican Texas Gas. But I don’t think the more reasonable Texan is going to let secession happen. Although if it did happen, I’d have to say I would probably, uh, jump ship.
The stories “Farewell, Africa” and “The Disappearance of the Sebali Tribe” read like parodies of highbrow magazine think pieces, but at the same time seem to actually be about serious ideas—the fetishizing of third world cultures, and sort of solipsistic magazine writers. Was all that deliberate?
Yeah, it was. “The Sebali Tribe” and “The Artist’s Voice”, they play around with journalistic voice. Like a New Yorker profile, or The Atlantic or something. But they came to me both as those kinds of ideas—the structure of writing this really non-fiction magazine essay. Mainly because I think you can do a lot of things stylistically with that language and structure that you can’t do when approaching a story as just a straight short story. Because people bring a different set of expectations to reading a short story than they do a magazine piece, and I was toying with those expectations.
But the “Farewell, Africa” piece—I saw a headline on a plane, I looked over the shoulder of someone on the plane and they were reading the “Week In Review” section of the Times, and I just saw the headline “Farewell, Africa”. And immediately it made it sound like we were saying goodbye to Africa. Because I’m sure it was an essay by someone who had spent time in Africa, but the headline made me think of someone who had written a speech saying goodbye to the continent itself. And I tried a number of a different ways of writing about that guy who wrote the “Farewell, Africa” speech. But it took me a while, and I decided, what if I tried writing it like an extended “Talk of The Town” piece?
There’s a part in there where the writer asks if he can shadow the PR rep who’s draining the pool, and she says, “Really, watching me drain this pool is newsworthy?” I feel like that’s a conversation that must happen during the reporting of every single “Talk of The Town” story.
(Chuckles)Yeah. But I’m always envious of people who are really good at reporting because I feel like they’re able to poke out such strong narratives, but within the confines of things that have actually happened and can be verified. That’s always baffled me. So that’s another reason why I borrow that format, because I really like reading those kinds of pieces, and I always wished that I could write them with some authority, but, uh, I always find it easier to play with true and not true.
With a piece of journalism, you can offer exposition in a way where people would reject it if it were just a short story. But with journalism, it’s expected because you’re doing a certain thing. But there’s also a weight and authority that comes with using that form and that language, just because people have been exposed to that kind of writing, and have come to expect it to have a certain authority and speak to verifiable facts. You can use that to your advantage as a writer, as long as you house it in a way where they know it’s fiction already.
Mainly, though, I do it because I admire it. I admire journalism’s ability to bypass all these internal roadblocks that readers put up for fiction. They put the onus on you to make them believe that your story could be real. I think it’s really cool in journalism, where you don’t have to, so you can play around with other things in the writing.
There was an article last weekend about George Saunders in the Times Magazine, and they mention these conversations he had with Ben Marcus about trying to write emotional fiction that’s not campy, but also doesn’t read like a technical exercise. You play a lot with language and fantastical elements, but is the emotional part still something you focus on?
Yeah, I worked with Ben Marcus when I was doing my MFA at Columbia…A lot of what I like to concern myself with is how you make something fun and interesting to read, and cleverly written, that’s still an emotional story, with characters. So when I read them they feel like real people. It’s like you forget that you’re reading a story, you’re just suddenly inside of a story.
But I think it’s interesting then to once in a while remind them that they’re reading a story. It’s a great thing to be reminded of: this thing that I’m reading is making me feel emotions, making connections to people who don’t exist. To be reminded that you’re engaging in this.
The collection is dedicated to your wife, and you have some nice things to say about her in the acknowledgments, but marriage in these stories often isn’t pretty. Was she nervous when she read the title piece?
No, no, she thought it was funny. We’re a married couple, we’ve been married ten years, and we’ve known each other as friends for ten years on top of that, so sometimes we’ll have fights about this, that or the other, but there’s never been any actual strain. But usually what I like to do when picking a story idea is to take something rather small or insignificant, either a personal flaw or a fight or a disagreement, and then hyperbolize it as much as I can, and see if I can make it still a believable story. So the guys, for the most part, are all kind of assholes. They play off the insecurities I feel of my own, about not standing up as the father or husband I’d like to be.
There’s something innate about them that, regardless of the effort they make, they still manage to fuck things up in the end. But in “All Of Me”, specifically, he has this innate nature where we all know what the end results will be. Either he will have his head chopped off, or he will eat everybody he loves. Those are the only two options, and you know that from the beginning, so I spend the rest of the time trying to convince you otherwise.
It’s like the whole time he’s trying to content himself with not living up to his full nature, and telling himself that’s okay, but in the end it’s kind of tragic.
And that one almost didn’t make it into the collection because when the collection was sent out to be sold, Colson Whitehead was on the cusp of publishing Zone One, and there was already so much stuff about zombies out in the pop world, that people would see the story in there and write it off and think it was just part of some whole trend. I wrote in the middle of 2009, so I wrote it before The Walking Dead came out.
I was really worried, because—I mean, zombies had always had their place in the background of pop culture—but when they came to the foreground, people were coming out with anthologies of zombie stories written by famous horror writers. But I didn’t want to take it out, I thought it was an interesting story and the zombie part is kind of beside the point—it’s about what’s inside of you that’s really the point. And I think it makes the book stronger. But a couple of the reviewers have put a kibosh on all zombie stories from here forward.
Do you think you will singlehandedly turn pop culture’s attention away from vampires and zombies and towards unicorns?
That would be awesome, especially if the unicorns that come out of it are similar to the unicorn in my story. There was a Young Adult anthology that came out a couple years ago that I know about because I did an event with some of the writers who are part of the organization that I run, Austin Bat Cave, and it’s called Zombies vs. Unicorns, based on a whole thing between two YA Authors over which were better. So they gathered up a bunch of other YA authors and wrote an equal number of stories for each. And they trash talk each other throughout the books, as they introduce each new story, and I have to say, I do feel like zombie stories edged out, slightly, the unicorn stories. There was, though, one unicorn story where the unicorns were violent and deadly and it was illegal to own one, and there were unicorn zombie hunters.
You don’t have to answer this, but it’s kind ambiguous in the story—is it in fact a unicorn, or just a goat with a deformed horn?
Oh to me it’s a unicorn. I’m not going to tell anyone else what to think, but when I wrote it, I wrote it as this magical beast that when you saw it, wasn’t really at all what you expected it to be, and it didn’t affect the women at all, but it enchanted the men entirely.
Had you considered taking a crack at a novel?
One reason why this collection took so long was because I did start work on a novel in 2004, and I wrote maybe seven or eight drafts of it over five years. I couldn’t find a way to make it work, or the way my editor said it needed to work in order to sell it. So finally, after that lengthy period of time, I had to finish something that is a thing that would make me feel not like a poseur.
Well you must feel confident that it’s good, since they say debut story collections are the hardest thing to sell.
Yeah I don’t know, I’ve been told again and again—because I sold it just as a collection—that I might be the last man alive to sell a collection not attached to a novel. I mean, it felt difficult to me, but only because it took so long.
"The Miniature Wife," from Riverhead Books, comes out January 10.