Diane Cook’s Man v. Nature came out last year, but as happens with many short story collections, you may have missed it. If so, I recommend you change that immediately.
This debut collection is comprised of twelve stories, each terrifying, funny, surprising, and, no matter if set in some dystopian future, a school gym, or the middle of a lake, oddly true. Now, I don’t mean true in that they really happened or they’re believable, but, rather, that at the story’s end you feel a little less alone. You know the feeling; you’ve been there, and yet that brief glimpse into human nature bears little comfort.
Many of the stories are set around ‘The End of Days,’ and yet the curmudgeonly neighbor who won’t share his food, the shelter you are transferred to to be assigned a new husband, and the business executives trying to negotiate with an apocalyptic beast would all be at home in our time. They, too, are oddly familiar. That is the terror and the joy of Diane Cook’s work: the speculative pieces show us the chaos and self-destruction at the end of the world and the pieces that list closer to realism show us those instances that, though they may seem trivial, feel like the end of the world: loss of friendship, middle-school betrayal, the dissolving of a lifelong delusion. Indeed, these stories show us that latter may be more haunting.
Cook’s years as a journalist (she worked for six years as a producer of This American Life) honed a stripped down, yet descriptive style that is equally adept at setting the broad tone of a era and hinting at a nuanced inner emotional state. I was particularly drawn to the female narrators and what they revealed, both subtly and not, about the trials of womanhood today and, perhaps, till the end of time.
We meet a mother standing up to her neighborhood gaggle of gossiping suburban woman who insist that what she is proposing is ‘just not done’ in “Somebody’s Baby;” a woman who marries a gigantic man so that her child can grow up to be big enough to fight past the post-apocalyptic hoards outside her door in “Marrying Up;” and a woman forced to play hostess for the growing mob in her front yard in “Mast Year.” For these stories, and others (especially “The Not-Needed Forest,” “Meteorologist Dave Santana,” “Girl on Girl” — oh, who can choose! They’re all good) I especially recommend this book to misadventurers looking for a summer laugh, cringe, and challenge.