I rarely read short story collections. To give you an idea of how rarely, I picked up Hall of Small Mammals by Thomas Pierce thinking it would be a good one-day read for the 2016 Reading Challenge. (Turns out the short part doesn’t matter nearly as much as the collection part when it comes to overall page count.) When I finished the first story, I was vaguely irritated. It just ended without answering all of my questions! I am willing to admit that this reaction stemmed from a lifetime of reading novels. Irritation aside, I am trying to broaden my literary scope, so I pressed on. By the third story in, I knew I would finish the entire collection. What I didn’t know is whether I would write about it here, and if I did, what I would say. Ultimately, I knew I needed to write about it when I kept thinking about both the stories and the writing itself days later.
In case there’s anyone else out there that hasn’t read a short story since college, I had to remember that a short story is a small glimpse of something bigger. We’re not meant to have the complete back story and the epilogue to neatly wrap things up. That’s not to say the characters or the situations in Hall of Small Mammals are two-dimensional. Each time I started a new story, I was fascinated by how few words Pierce needed to paint a clear picture of the characters and situation. For example, this scene from “The Real Alan Glass” when Alan’s girlfriend says she needs to tell him about something. About someone. “He runs his hand through his dark hair, as if exhausted. If she confesses an affair, what will he do? First, switch off the burner. Second, grab his jacket and go without a word. The third step could involve fast walking, tears, and possibly a stop at the liquor store. Beyond that, it’s hard to say.” We don’t know much else about Alan, but we know that he is the type of person to think about what he would do in that breath between “I need to tell you something” and whatever the something is. As someone who immediately jumps to the worst when anyone “needs to talk,” I get that.
The book jacket heralds Hall of Small Mammals as “seeking to understand the absurdity and magnitude of what it means to be good, to be part of a family, to exist in the world–to exist at all.” I’m so glad I didn’t read that until I’d finished the collection. If I had, I probably would have put the book down thinking it would be pretentious. And yet, the description fits. The underlining connection between the stories is the characters’ attempts to figure out their world (or part of it). The stories are all very accessible, with beautiful sentences here or there that would I would have underlined if I owned the copy I was reading.
Part of the mystery of the collection comes from trying to classify it. It could easily be shelved with science fiction (what with stories of cloned miniature mammoths and a physicist who lives two lives, one during waking hours and one asleep), but that might be a misnomer. Most of the stories lack any fantastical or futuristic elements at all. My library has it shelved with the general fiction, but as with many books, it doesn’t belong completely to any one genre.
Taken individually, I’m still not sure how I felt about the stories. Sometimes the lack of resolution left me unsatisfied. And yet, I found myself engaged in a way that reminded me of favorite literature classes in college. Pierce has an incredible skill for dropping the reader right into the protaganist’s life with just a paragraph or two. By way of fair warning: there is some profanity and a handful of mentions of sex. The characters are all adults dealing with adult life, but I did not find it particularly explicit or crude.
I would recommend this to: fans of literary fiction, those with small windows of time to read (a few minutes before bed, during lunch, or on the bus), and readers that prefer well-drawn characters over page-turning action.