Book Review

Primal urges and vivid intellectual curiosity define the stories in Emily Wortman-Wunder’s Not a Thing to Comfort You. Some of this happens organically as a result of the natural-world motif pulsing as a powerful undercurrent linking many of the stories in this collection that garnered the prestigious Iowa Short Fiction Award in 2019. And some of it happens as a result of the raw want that trembles and glistens in each narrative, many times intersecting with the natural world’s splendor.

In “Trespassing,” a young mother gives into the siren song of the creek whose ancient tune we realize the mother has known all along. We understand, as she does, that she might be inextricably linked to the water through shared loneliness, and we can’t help but quiver with longing, too, as we encounter such startling descriptions as:

Then, at the fence, she is hit by a wave of longing so intense she can’t tell whether it comes from inside her or beyond her. The creek seems to be rising up above its own bed, something in its babble grasping and raw. Its loneliness reaches up out of the muddy banks, a rusty clutch of misery, and it is like she has unexpectedly caught sight of her own reflection.

Deep desire also permeates the stories where nature is more subtly woven into the narrative structure, such as in “Gustav and Vera,” which features the emotional machinations of a host of characters involved with a small-town orchestra. Consider this moment of sensual epiphany from the aging Meardis:

I am content, you see, with things as they are. I have my garden, my bathtub, my job: I don’t need the blood and heat of family life, or the frenetic ecstasy of sex. The wet grass chills me and another buffeting wind from the lake splits my hair in two, like fingers, and pushes me forward so that I feel the binding of my underclothes. I’m hit by a longing so intense and unexpected that it leaves me gasping.

The language, like the nature it describes, is intensely alive, and the stories’ palpable tension coalesces into a potent visceral allure. But part of that allure comes from diction that has, at moments, a certain cerebral prowess, too. Science is sexy in such stories as “The Endangered Fish of the Colorado River”:

The bonytail chub, like all cyprinid fish, has a sensory organ other fish don’t have. In the end, it was like I sensed the river with an organ that Max and my ex did not possess. I loved the sweat, the stink, the river’s algal pull; the slime of the fish, the alkali of the salt flats on either side of the ancient sandstone strained with iron; the ruins, the petroglyphs, the hidden canyons hung with vines. It mystified me that they didn’t love it, too.

But all this longing and intellectual curiosity comes at a cost. These are stories that, as the title piece heralds, lure us not by comfort, but by a swirling maelstrom of human emotion. Kaleidoscopically multifaceted, Wortman-Wunder’s characters challenge, mystify, and grieve us as much as they beguile us. And that’s a good thing. No, that’s a great thing, because it means even in the somewhat succinct short story format, these characters are layered with complexity.

To that end, the book proffers an eclectic range of people, but all gleaming with verisimilitude. We know these people. We are these people. Wortman-Wunder gives us realistically flawed, but intriguing human beings throughout the collection. There’s the nurse in the title story, working with a mysterious homeless woman, Nancy, who’s jumped a train. The nurse lies and manipulates to keep Nancy tied to her, not from a source of altruism, but some desire to link herself to the forever traveling Nancy. We get to the root of what’s compelling the nurse, her skirting relationship intimacy, when she says that Nancy would “understand that sometimes comfort isn’t enough” and that she’d hoped to stay in touch and at least get “phone calls, from places like Kansas City, Denver, Santa Fe.” The nurse reveals her unadulterated want when she admits she sought Nancy out in order to have “links to life somewhere else.”

And there’s the couple in “The Hitchhiker’s Rule” who picks up an attractive female, known only as Hitchhiker Girl, and then abandons her after a surreal mountaintop encounter with nature’s brutality. What starts off as a seemingly innocuous meeting with an adventure-seeking young woman who takes up the challenge to race to the top of a mountain, moves rapidly towards tragedy. The story is remarkable because the action happens so quickly, yet we are left as devastated as the abandoned girl by the end. It’s not just the bad timing of the anomalous storm that abruptly changes the characters’ course that leaves us reeling, but the shock of how swiftly it reveals the primal fight-or-flight response of the couple after Hitchhiker Girl is injured. The story kicks the reader in the gut with its final words, spoken by one member of the couple, a question full of grief and regret that probably everyone has asked themselves at one point or the other: “Why didn’t we do something?”

Then in “Bad,” we find Jenny trying to understand the demise of her own moral compass as she blames herself for the death of her friend, April. This story isn’t just about two adolescents negotiating the identities of their new womanhood and sexuality and all the associated power dynamics, it’s a narrative that, like so much of Not a Thing to Comfort You, delves into longing and regret. From their first experiences getting drunk together to increasingly more dangerous antics, we witness behavior that sees them reveling in their burgeoning bodies, even as it propels them towards chaos. Wortman-Wunder’s language brings the camera in for a close-up—and once again culminates with heightened longing—with a fusion of her scientific diction and sensual paradigm, when Jenny says of her own body:

My body stretched flat on the bed, bent at the knees, my toes brushing the floor. Leg bones, pelvic girdle, spine, ribs, organs, shoulder blades, arm bones, neck, skull. I could even follow the blood as it pushed through my soft and flawless veins. Everything neat and clean and working properly, but empty.

The characters in Not a Thing to Comfort You are somehow inscrutable as we read about their enigmatic choices, and yet they’re concurrently reflections of our truest selves, responding in primal ways that we all recognize. That’s a paradoxical dichotomy, because how can someone be truly unknowable, yet be propelled by primal urges that are universally experienced? It’s the sort of literary paradox definitely worth exploring. And it may be the very essence of humanity that Wortman-Wunder has deftly described in this remarkable collection.

About the Reviewer

Author of the novel Like Light, Like Music (West Virginia University Press 2020), Lana K. W. Austin’s poems and short stories have recently been featured in Mid-American Review, Sou’wester, and Columbia Journal, etc. Winner of the 2019 Alabama State Poetry Society Book of the Year Award, a 2019 Hackney Poetry Award & the 2018 Words & Music Poetry Award, Austin has an MFA from George Mason University. Her full-length poetry collection, Blood Harmony, is from Iris Press (2018). Austin currently teaches writing at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.