To call Robin McLean a storyteller is technically correct but misses the point of her work; McLean doesn’t write stories so much as she writes about them. To this end, her short fiction collection Reptile House examines the malleability of character and plot, as well as how this might be used to subvert the conventions of the genre. Moreover, she wants her readers to actively engage with the characters instead of being passive consumers of narrative. The result is a dazzling debut that signals the arrival of one of fiction’s most compelling new voices.
The collection’s opening story, “Cold Snap,” in which a young woman struggles to maintain a sense of normalcy amid a winter of near-dystopian proportions, establishes a tone that is both gritty and playful:
As the glaciers moved south toward the Capitol, some high points and valleys were spared. Ice slipped around them, while the rising sea pressed the coastlines. Planes dropped from the sky, no one knew why. Engineers volunteered from the private sector. They repaired and upgraded. They drilled for heat in the earth, hot water or steam, to turn the turbines. It was proven science, but the crews were stressed and components untested. Reactor waters were ice rinks boiling in the middles when the sea crawled up over boardwalks and streets, consuming bike paths and smashing hot-dog stands against shopping districts and schools.
Despite the description of the brutal weather, McLean isn’t asking us to sympathize with the characters here, certainly not with our protagonist Lilibeth, who is on the upswing of a divorce. Rather, she wants us to consider what sympathy for a character actually means. It would be easy to let a story like this devolve into some maudlin post-relationship tragedy wherein the reader is strong-armed into pitying Lilibeth. But Lilibeth doesn’t view herself as a victim; in fact, she’s almost comically indifferent to her circumstances, navigating her life with a calm matter-of-factness that belies the weather’s threat:
It felt colder in town than at her house. She stamped her boots and hugged her arms. It felt much colder. She marveled at this impression. How real it seemed, how actual, factual, reliable, true. How apparently based on sensory perception, the nerves in the face, for example, the capillaries of the ears when the hat flew off and tumbled away. The pain in the lungs, deep breaths required for catching the hat, for leaping a drift.
All of which raises an important question, one to which more writers should give consideration: what do we as readers actually hope to take from our characters, and what does this suggest about us? It’s one of the main themes in the book that McLean continues to explore in stories such as “Take the Car Take the Girl,” in which a friendly dinner gathering yields the kind of character revelations one might expect from Carver or O’Connor, and “For Swimmers,” which details a love triangle decades in the making. For all of the tragedy that these characters endure, McLean insists that we not feel sorry for them but that we examine the concept of tragedy objectively. Take, for example, “Blue Nevus,” which takes its name from the caterpillar-shaped mole on the arm of our central character, Roger Cotton. Despite the concerns of his gym compatriots Roger remains aloof, his regard for his health secondary to what the blue nevus suggests about modernity. “The Middle Ages was a better time to live,” he considers. “Life spans were shorter and more defined. Smallpox and Black Plague took people quickly regardless of sin or previous health.”
The methodical feel to the stories in Reptile House speaks to McLean’s intimate understanding of form. Perhaps more important, however, is her interest in finding ways to undermine the strictures of form. For example, in our title story when the main character is witnessing the birth of his child:
“Carl, cut the cord,” [his wife] said.
“Cut the cord,” he repeated, and set a hand on the knee.
Carl had done it for the others and this, he felt, was more than his share. The other kids were tucked in and away for a few days at her sister’s spread in Winnetka, not far from his parents’ old farm. His own modest house off Cicero, just southwest of downtown, was enticingly empty tonight, all five windows to the street, three on top and two on each side of the red door, would be dark. He hoped to get home tonight and sleep in some big empty bed, in all that still and lonesome.
Here our protagonist’s warped sense of priority establishes a very clear conflict while also emblemizing McLean’s knack for portraying characters as researchers observing their own lives as a kind of experiment, turning the mundane into something extraordinary. Time and again, McLean uncovers a kind of beauty in the ordinary, a sense of wonder in the everyday objects and events that might otherwise fly entirely below our radar.
Much of this has to do with the prose, which is sharp and concise and tinged with a poetic flare. In the same vein as authors such as Amy Hempel and Ben Fountain, McLean works predominantly on the sentence level, ensuring that each paragraph resounds with meaning and metaphor. More than once I found myself lingering on a line or passage, admiring its elegant rhythm, like in “No Name Creek,” when McLean writes, “The peaks jabbed at the sky and the sky just sat there and took it.” Or in “The True End to All Sad Times,” when we are told that hate “is like a rock in the dirt that a guy finds when he digs deep enough with a shovel.”
McLean’s insistence that readers engage with each story as its own object, examining the sizes and shapes and textures and dimensions, points to her steadfast command of language. And in most cases this works, though once or twice I did find myself frustrated at some of the stories’ insularity. That’s not to say that every creative choice she makes needs to broadcast its function to the reader (and to be honest, I sort of hate when authors do this). But why, for instance, was “Blue Nevus” organized with subheadings from the handbook of a space agency? Why do so many of McLean’s characters seem so reluctant feel anything? It’s as if the author is so concerned the stories will slip into contrivance that she is overcompensating by withholding critical details that could make them even richer.
But these instances were hardly enough to spoil the entire book for me. In fact, to a large degree the mystery here made the reading experience that much more rewarding, because I am still thinking about these stories, still turning those objects over in my head like the strange but stunning artifacts of someone else’s life. And that, I suppose, is Reptile House’s most impressive accomplishment: for better or worse, it is the kind of book that stays with you long after you’ve finished it, begging to be revisited over and over again.
About the Reviewer
Jeremy Griffin is the author of a collection of short fiction from SFASU Press titled A Last Resort for Desperate People. His work has appeared in such journals as the Indiana Review, the Iowa Review, and Shenandoah. Currently, he is a lecturer at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina.