REVIEW SUMMARY: A perceptive and tenacious set of stories that demonstrate Reed’s talent and significance as a writer, these thirteen stories (with an Afterword by her husband, Joseph Reed) will draw you in, get past your guard, and then distress you with their aciculate barbs of insight into human nature.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A collection of short stories that probe what makes us human by exposing and elucidating our misconceptions and failings, even in moments of strangeness and wonder.
PROS: Accomplished composition and style; deceptively direct yet subtly profound; an assemblage of acerbic, sagacious takes on life.
CONS: Perhaps too bitter in places; sometimes you are left scratching your head about the point (but this is also a plus, honestly).
BOTTOM LINE: A powerful reading experience that will impress you and, maybe, shake you up.
This was my first sustained reading of Kit Reed’s work, and I came to it with both excitement and apprehension. I was curious what it would be like to read her stories gathered together, instead of years apart (which was my previous experience). I wondered what I would see upon viewing them so closely presented, how they might play off of one another. Mostly, I was concerned that I would overlay too many expectations onto them, or try to ignore my expectations, given that her writing is characterized as “transgenred.” What might I lose if I looked at them as too much like fantastika, or tried to downplay their fantastical aspects?
Fortunately, nothing. Regardless of what reading protocols you might bring to the collection, What Wolves Know is a collection of stories that explicitly undermine expectations. You can see them as incisive genre-inflected short stories, or as trenchant literary episodes in an exploration of self-delusion and its discontents. To an extent it does not matter if you think of them as genre or not, because they will still engage and surprise you, even if their dryness and sudden moments of perspicacity make you pause a moment before continuing, or make you wonder if you want to continue. Reed is not transcending genre; she is naturalizing it through the composition of each story and refusing to reify the distinction between the real and the fantastic. Each of these stories (save one) relies on a fantastical premise, yet they smoothly blend that with sharp writing and wry observations on the human character to produce excellent stories that edify and simultaneously create admiration and discomfort.
Even as they reveal vulnerabilities and foibles in their characters, these stories are nimbly deceptive. They are cleanly-written, often in straightforward prose, and put together with concision and brevity. There is no excess to them and they build, if not always to a firm ending, to a point of revelation, where the protagonist and the reader both discover something they had not discerned at the beginning. Certainly, this is the goal of many stories, but Reed’s stories meticulously set the stage for the story’s end and keep you so deeply occupied that the ending comes as either an epiphany or a moment of bewilderment.
The settings and characters are a diverse lot: these stories take place in New York, in New Delhi, In Venice, in locations that are recognizable but that are made strange by the situation. The characters, sometimes dysfunctional, sometimes deranged, create a feeling of dislocation, whether they are the wolf-boy of the title story or an American woman searching for. . . something in India, or a teenager trying to make sense of his life as his parents make sense of it different ways. And it is here that things start to break down, that communication becomes fuzzy, that what characters hear does not equal what others are saying. All of that concision and straightforwardness, we soon find out, is a trap.
Betrayal is an overarching theme in this collection, but it is a peculiar assortment of self-betrayals. Reed not only subverts her readers’ expectations, but those of her characters. Characters claw for self-possession, for fame and fortune, but cannot escape the fact that they have built their ambition on others’ foundations, and find that the payment to do so is great. In trying to achieve their dreams, they ignore others’ feelings, others’ needs, and then the liabilities they create with this ignorance. What makes Reed’s writing exceed easy genre labeling is that it refuses comfort at every level, not merely to unnerve but to castigate. The reading is treacherous not because of style or vocabulary, but because you are so quickly drawn into the story that, by the time you might want to escape, it’s too late. There is nowhere to go but onward.
What Reed refuses to permit the reader is excessive displacement. We are never given the comfort of “once upon a time” or “imagine yourself set down.” These stories happen in an undifferentiated now, often in first-person narratives that stress immediacy but also a sort of predestination, an arch of inevitability that the flawed characters create themselves. At their best these stories show us how people create the world they live in, overlay it with their own expectations and contrivances, and fail to recognize the artificial life they have constructed. Sometimes, you may be left scratching your head, wondering if you missed something, which I felt after reading “Denny” and “Song of the Black Dog.” But while some of these stories work better than others, all of them execute their objective, to show us all of the ways that humans make their own miseries, and how with a bit more insight perhaps we the reader can do better.
We often want in literature what we cannot get in life, from a discernible structure to details that we constantly miss. We also want to be right, to have our plans work smoothly and our aspirations be fulfilled in their execution. But the details the characters perceive in these stories are all the things that work against them, and they often do not understand what it all adds up to until it is too late, and misidentification has led them to a far different conclusion to their agendas than they had hoped. These characters in essence approach their lives like they are a story in a book or a TV movie, and are surprised to find that not only their assessment, but their perspective, is deluded by their desires and their pain. What wolves know, but few of these characters figure out, is that these delusions lead to bad ends, and as uncomfortable and even counter-intuitive as it might seem, until we understand how we drag ourselves down, how we hurt others in the rush ahead to an unexamined dream, we will keep recognizing these stories and, sometimes, seeing more of ourselves in them than we might like.