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Life on Mars

by Lori McNulty


None of the stories in Lori McNulty’s debut collection is set on the planet Mars, but nevertheless that destination is invoked in nearly all of them, most often as a way of alluding to feelings of distance and strangeness.

McNulty’s subject matter is typically grounded in a gritty lower- and working-class reality, but the Martian subtext is never far away, sometimes appearing as a gentle tug and other times warping reality in surreal ways. The weirdness is most obvious in stories like “Prey,” in which a squid directs a fellow to take a cross-continent trip from California to Newfoundland, or “Polymarpussle Takes a Chance,” which sees its narrator transformed into an Indian deity. It is also, however, noticeable in McNulty’s style, which often goes in for jarring metaphors rather than gentle similes: “Midnight is a flame tip in my skunky mouth, loitering near the Albert Street underpass, watching cars spit out of this shadow hole”; “Markus was a broken bridge over a spent creek”; “Tu’s thin and crooked, a dark, jagged line against the chalky white kitchen.”

Etymologically, the word “metaphor” refers to a carrying over or across; in its direct equation of one thing with another the literary device performs an act of metamorphosis. McNulty’s style suits her theme: metamorphosis is very much in the air. In “Ticker,” a heart transplant recipient also becomes the host of the spirit of his deceased donor. In “Gindelle of the Abbey,” a married member of the bourgeoisie transforms himself into a homeless man through the power of wardrobe and makeup. And in the best story, “Monsoon Season,” the main character is a woman recovering from gender reassignment surgery. You never know where you’re going with these stories, nor, after they’re over, can you be entirely sure where you’ve been.

The collection’s other focus is on relationships, and the way personal bonds are tested and transformed. There is no “normal” state in these pieces, only dysfunctional families and midlife crises. And again we feel the call of the strange. The story “WOOF,” which draws its title from the acronym for “Wild Ones Over Forty,” deals with a woman having a breakdown that seems to end in her going feral, as though she’s become a lycanthrope. Alienated from their significant others – and even to some degree from life on this planet – many of the characters in this book are themselves off-putting. However, we feel, if not sympathy, then at least a kind of respect for their powers to adapt and endure in such unstable environments.