Tell a friend you are reading a novel and she will inevitably ask you what it is about. Try to describe the plot. Maybe a daughter of an oil tycoon is kidnapped, then he goes bankrupt due to an oil spill in the Gulf, so he murders an old lady with a hatchet to make the ransom (she was a bad person anyway), but the daughter has an enchanting voice and she escapes by seducing one of her kidnappers with her singing. More or less so, you say. It’s about choices, you hesitantly add.
Tell the same friend you are reading a collection of short stories and you have no answer.
A middle-aged man develops a tumor in his colon made up of fetal tissue. The tumor has hair, bones, teeth and a rectum. Now a man with two rectums is disappointed: he thought he had cancer. Now his wife’s pity will turn to disgust and she will leave him, as she originally planned. He calls the tumor Junior… Upon an insistence of her neighbor, a young woman adopts two tiny kittens. This neighbor and his brother spend days rebuilding their ’69 Charger, and a body of a cat, the kittens’ mother, is rotting in the trunk of their car. The woman is reluctant to take the kittens, her daughter died from carbon monoxide poisoning and, she figures, she used up the finite amount of care she had… A girl named Feather Ann steals a pair of moccasins from her YMCA counselor. The counselor goes to the girl’s impoverished home to retrieve the shoes, a present from her mother who is dying from cervical cancer… This is what some of the stories in Xhenet Aliu’s collection Domesticated Wild Things and Other Stories are about.
Of course, they are not. Aliu’s stories are not about orphaned kittens, extra rectums or stolen moccasins. They are also not about struggling single mothers, abandoned children or relationships in a rut. Neither are they about poverty or the search for an escape from a life that didn’t turn out the way one hoped it would back in high school, before becoming pregnant and never going to college. And definitely Aliu’s stories are not about choices.
Choices mostly exist in fairy tales and less so in (as the book’s back cover describes the setting) the “rusty underbelly” of Connecticut. Perhaps Aliu’s stories deal with the massive gray area of human character located between the bad choices and the wrong ones. Ramon, a struggling wrestler, befriends a seven-year-old girl, his neighbor, and walks in on her being molested by their landlord, George. Most likely, he knew about it before he saw it. The outcome was predetermined, like the outcomes of his wrestling matches decided by his promoter Johnny. Johnny also controls the crowd and arranges for “a man who roots for the bad guys in the ring because it clarifies the distinction between good and evil, proves the audience that good does not always triumph but the fight always goes on.” Ramon beats up George, regardless.
Maybe Aliu’s stories are about fights with foreseeable and unavoidable outcomes—fights that end in a loss, fights that are doomed because the fighters all come from the wrong side of the track. But no, the side of the track is not the only reason. Could it also be that all Aliu’s characters are perfectly predictably flawed? No, there is more to it. Perhaps loss is the only reliable outcome one could count on. Loss or cancer.
So tell a friend you recently read and loved a collection of short stories about loss and cancer. Watch her eyes turn to concern. Tell her that it was the most hopeful book you’ve read in a while and receive a hug and a business card of her psychotherapist. Will you be able to explain to her that, as Aliu writes in the story about Ramon the wrestler, “even when the outcome is predetermined, there is a certain amount of belief that carries through every match?” Of course, you could say that the characters were wonderfully complex and an incredible sense of compassion emanates from each line of the book, from the insistent hopeless hope the characters refuse to give up. Say that, and sound like a pretentious show off.
How would an author write loss without having it become trite? By writing around it. So Aliu writes about kittens, rectums, real-estate foreclosure scams, Greek diners, a praying mantis in a kill jar, and a dead child’s stuffed rabbit. “Those are things that are supposed to be temporary, the things you expect to give up.” Those are also the things you can describe. Between them, are the things you end up giving up instead. These other things, the ones that frustrate the about question, could be glimpsed in Aliu’s collection of stories like moving images in a cartoon flipbook.
Aliu’s characters have different names, ages, worries, loves and illnesses. Mostly, they make the same mistakes. The stories hit somewhere between the heart and the gut, maybe around the liver or the solar plexus. Call it gut wrenching, if you must use a term. It’s a better way to think about Aliu’s stories than the impossibly ridiculous about question.
So, the next time a friend asks you what a book is about, tell her that all you can say is that there are no oil tycoons or kidnapped daughters. The question is loaded because it contains an assumption that books could be boiled down to a plotline, a few themes and a takeaway. Maybe give her the book. Especially if it left a few stones in your gut along with an inability to describe it well.
Marina Petrova lives and writes in New York City. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, underwaternewyork.com, The Destroyer, and Calliope 19th Anthology. She is an MFA candidate at The New School.