“Concerned about LONGING? Worried that the EARTH might be TOTALLY DYING and wondering how LOVE might SAVE IT?” Patrick Somerville poses these questions on the back of his new collection “The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, ” but the stories inside don’t really provide comforting answers so much as brutal insight. In a series of connected “mini-novels, ” Somerville creates a kind of post-apocalyptic Chicago, and other points Midwest, where the earth stops revolving, philanthropists go big and fail, and shitheads abound. The book opens with the title story, about an art student named Rose who makes models of fathers and sons making models of the solar system together. “How twee,” you might be thinking, but Somerville knows that, and “twee” works as a pretty good punchline throughout. There’s magic, too; Rose meets her adviser (at the School of Surreal Thought and Design, sound familiar?) in a labyrinth that leads to a glass room underneath Lake Michigan.
The conversation they have touches on the themes that connect the stories, including a direct mention of “The Machine of Understanding Other People,” the last story here, and one that brings it all together. A man is bequeathed a helmet from an obscure relative that allows the person wearing it to truly understand the person he points it at, often resulting in a wicked “empathy hangover,” but with the benefit of…understanding. He first uses it on a woman he’s just slept with and sees “at least a hundred disappointing, mediocre men, each with an attendant stain of optimism, too. He saw—really disturbing—how perfectly he fit into that list.”
This is a complicated book. It’s the kind of well-written, postmodern thing you see attempted all the time by writers striving to be a more accessible David Foster Wallace. Somerville jumps through the usual hoops; a narrator’s grandfather’s grandfather is named James Somerville, there are a few obsequious footnotes and, of course, there is the inherent conceit of the connected “mini-novels,” but when you put this book down, there’s an impulse to applaud yourself for connecting the dots, followed by the urge to read it again, to figure out the bits you’ve missed. It’s clever, and funny, and it’s a pleasure to recognize Chicago through Somerville’s quirky lens, but it is also a serious attempt at dealing with a lot of hairy human behavior and emotions. Patrick Somerville’s skill is in melding the twee—you can assemble a planetary mobile out of the book’s cover—with the bleak, and making it compelling. (Jessica Meyer)
“The Universe in Miniature in Miniature”
By Patrick Somerville
Featherproof Books, 304 pages, $14.95