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Ten stories ...
Ten stories in all, the highly original PHONE CALLS FROM THE DEAD pulses with meaning. Alive and odd and needy, the characters in Wendy Brenner's stories grapple with the extraordinary and the ordinary, searching for answers from unlikely sources, striving to connect with each other and with something greater than themselves. Amidst a world of technological, natural, and possibly supernatural phenomena, they struggle with the most human of losses and longings.
Named one of twenty-five fiction writers to watch by Writer's Digest (along with Allegra Goodman, Jhumpa Lahiri, and William Gay), Brenner has been paving a new path through American fiction ever since her first collection, Large Animals in Everyday Life. Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, described that collection as "chock-full of pitch-perfect dialogue and dead-on descriptions . . . intoxicatingly original." In PHONE CALLS FROM THE DEAD, the stories do just that, and then go a step farther. Whether it moves you to uncontrollable laughter or to tears, you won't soon forget Wendy Brenner's work.
His mission was simple: to destabilize scienti?c paradigms by assembling a multivolume collection of every scienti?c anomaly ever recorded-an Encyclopedia of Anomalies, the most comprehensive, exhaustively researched reference text of its kind. Okay, so maybe it wasn't simple-but it could be accomplished. It was not an experiment, in which the outcome was uncertain, but a task.
He loved tasks. He loved the gut satisfaction of collecting, going from empty to full, knowing you hadn't missed anything. Unlike his colleagues at the corporate labs where he interned as a student, he never complained about working on the cash-cow research projects commissioned to prove what was already known, the endless recording of data in closed white rooms, no credit, no contact, no ground-breaking results. Teachers and girlfriends had always told him he was obsessive, "though not interestingly so," his college girlfriend, a poet, said. "Your imagination is so literal, it's not even an imagination," she told him. "It's like, a dresser or something."
"But you knew I was a marine biology major when we started going out," he said. "Scientists have to be logical."
"Scientists are supposed to love competition, discovery, not just data, data, data," she said, and then dumped him for his art-major roommate, a natural extrovert who had a high-paying museum curator job waiting for him upon graduation, because, he bragged, "I interview like a motherfucker."
She had gotten on the anomalist's nerves, anyway, always announcing everything that was happening as it was happening, the way old people did at the movies-so that he secretly began to think of her as PA Girl. Like when they were lying entwined, she would say, "We're so close right now." After they ate she exclaimed, "We're done!" "We are having so much fun," she'd say, and he'd think, Yeah, I was, until the pa came on . . . She wasn't so unusual, he knew; people seemed to love narrating their own lives, an urge he had never understood. So much in the universe still cried out for examination, explanation, or at least some mention, he didn't see why anyone would waste time pointing out the obvious.
He had begun, as a kind of hobby, clipping or copying items he found in the newspaper or in the old issues of Scienti?c American and Nature and Sky and Telescope he used for his term papers, accounts of anomalies that had been observed and recorded but never explained by science. Electric Trees in Chicago, 1897. Stone-Swallowing by Seals. Unusual Twilight Phenomena Over Ethiopia. MacFarlane's Bear: Hybrid or Freak? He used the clippings as bookmarks, stuffed them in envelopes, and ?nally began pasting them into spiral notebooks, organized by topic. Spontaneous Combustion in Non-Human Species. Does the Sun Have a Seldom-Seen Companion Star? Even the most unscienti?c, self-involved person would ?nd these stories fascinating, he thought. PA Girl could say whatever she liked, he knew he was not, at his core, boring.
After graduation he stayed on at the labs, occasionally moonlighting selling algae as a nutritional supplement door to door (ride the green wave to freedom!, an indestructible bumper sticker on his Toyota still read), but his anomaly collection had taken on a life of its own, growing even when he neglected it. Clippings came to him unsolicited from around the country and world, from the most distant of acquaintances-though he could not recall having mentioned his hobby to so many people. He supposed the urge to collect accounts of freak occurrences was primal and universal, but people seemed especially eager for him to do it, including little notes with their clippings like "This made me think of you!" and "Your kind of thing!"
Of course, much of what they sent him did not constitute legitimate anomalies. Most items had logical explanations, easily attributable to the laws of nature and physics. Mexican Wolf-Boy, for example, had curiosity value but was not an anomaly because genetic mutation was a known process. If a story was completely unsubstantiated he couldn't use it either-anyone could claim to see their dead grandmother ?oating at the foot of their bed. He wasn't interested in proving the existence of the paranormal, or disproving it. He just wanted to create a place, a safe shelter, like an orphanage, for all the data science couldn't, or wouldn't, explain, and thus labeled unusable, unimportant.
He self-published the ?rst volume using a press he found listed in the back of Popular Astronomy and ran a classi?ed to sell the book mail-order, though he sent complimentary copies to his friends and family. Finally, someone to follow in Donny's footsteps, ha ha, his mother wrote back to him, referring to her late great-uncle, who at seventy-?ve had gotten a watch tattooed on his wrist to symbolize the meaninglessness of time and then spent his retirement trying to invent a perpetual-motion machine. The anomalist remembered visiting Donny's house as a child and seeing one of the prototypes sitting dusty and motionless in a corner of the garage-a nondescript boxlike device resembling a stereo speaker.
But the Encyclopedia wasn't sitting in a garage, it was selling, enough to pay for groceries and let him cut back his lab assignments, and to attract the attention of a small publishing house who wanted to put out Volumes II and III. He could not have put his ?nger on the single moment, the turning point when the project morphed from hobby into full-time job, but he found himself strangely relieved that it had. Leaving the house was overrated anyway, he thought. Too much travel always made him feel he was missing or forgetting something.
PA Girl had been right in one prediction: He could never have committed himself to a single discipline long enough to make it as a marine biologist, a research pioneer, doing the kind of specialized, signi?cant work that changed lives and the environment and history. To look very closely at a certain object, he remembered from some art class he'd been required to take, means you are looking away from many other objects. He could never turn away from the messy multitude of everything-he was a collector.
Secretly, and then with increasing con?dence as he completed each new volume, he believed the Encyclopedia would one day come to be seen as seminal, signi?cant as any newly discovered species or element or cure. Hadn't mainstream science scoffed at continental drift, quantum physics, only to canonize them a few years later? In future times his collection would stand, testimony to all that couldn't be ?tted easily into somebody's theory of how the world worked. He would leave the discoveries to others, but some of these, he believed, would arise and take shape, like the ?rst stirrings of life itself, from the pages of data he was slowly amassing.
By the time he was thirty he had published the ?rst seven volumes, covering the disciplines of biology, geology, physics, astronomy, archeology, psychology, and mathematics; now he worked by subcategory and sub-subcategory for the auxiliary volumes: Anomalous Hydrological Phenomena. Auditory Hallucinations. Unexplained Detonations, Possibly Seismic. There was no end to the oddball, ragtag data cast off by science, calling out for his attention. And as long as he was breathing, no anomaly would spin off into oblivion, left to ?oat in obscurity like a dead star or an unseen meteor. He'd be there to catch them all, give them their proper due.
When he was ?ve he got his head stuck in a fence at the Imagination Station, a scenic overlook on the edge of a Florida state preserve, where one could view alligators and sandhill cranes and bison, if you're in the right place at the right time, a carved plaque read. That phrase excited him-it sounded like a challenge or the rules to a mysterious game. He was on vacation from the snowy north with his family, his ?rst time in Florida, overstimulated by the blitz of color and light, the prehistoric trees and rotting-fruit smell everywhere. Instead of waiting his turn to be held up, he pushed his head between two aluminum fence poles, but all he saw was green, ?at as a game board. Oversized insects looped down in front of his face, but no buffalo appeared. And he was stuck.
A long time passed, but he didn't cry. His mother took his brothers away to get sandwiches and his father stayed with him, neither of them saying much. His mother returned and pushed wads of Arby's roast beef into his mouth. Other grown-ups came and went; different hands folded his neck and shoulders this way and that. He couldn't see their faces, but he answered their questions politely. His scalp grew hot and made him sleepy, but he stayed awake in case a buffalo appeared. This might not be the right place, he thought, but he was bound to get the right time, stuck here for so long. It made a lot more sense to wait in one place for a whole day or year or however long it took for that place's right time to come along, he thought, than to run randomly, frantically, from place to place, diminishing your chances at each of them. That would just be stupid.
Finally the man with the special saw arrived. The man lowered the long serrated blade before his eyes so he could see it-and then he began to cry. Don't worry, he's only going to saw near your head, his mother said. Close your eyes, it'll be over in a minute. But he kept them open. He wasn't really crying because of the saw, anyway, but because of the sudden, certain realization that if he shut his eyes, even for an instant, the buffalo would come out-he was sure of it. He understood everything: He could keep his eyes open and the buffalo wouldn't appear, or close them and it would. The buffalo knew exactly what it was doing, he thought, knew how to win every time. He kept his eyes open. No buffalo.
And, sure enough, after they ?nally got him free and checked him over, thanked and paid the man with the saw and loaded themselves back into the station wagon and pulled back onto the highway, he watched the prairie through the back window, and just before they rounded the ?rst curve he saw it: the black crescent edge of a huge blunt shape, nosing slowly out of the underbrush, victorious.
The Human Side of Instrumental Transcommunication (39)
Four Squirrels (53)
Are We Almost There (69)
The Cantankerous Judge (99)
Mr. Puniverse (127)
Mr. Meek (149)
Remnants of Earl (203)
Posted July 1, 2001
I'm a fan of Oxford American (The New Yorker of the South) and have already read in those pages some of the stories in this new collection; the ones I've read are warm-hearted, soulful, often hilarious responses to our increasingly technological world. This is a writer who in many ways loves the culture and moment we live in, loves what's collectively become of us all, and writes of it with enormous intelligence and humor. A great talent at work here.
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Posted July 6, 2001
I've been a devotee of Wendy Brenner ever since I read her first collection <i>Large Animals in Everyday Life</i>, and I've watched with fascination her progression from those stories to the more mystical stories published in Story and the Oxford American and now collected in <i>Phone Calls from the Dead</i>. Her well-documented range alone should be proof of her mastery as a writer, her wonderful ability to use a voice, whether a grief-stricken father or a mad squirrel, to make us empathize with these characters. We become obsessed with what they are obsessed with. But, the thing I cherish most in Brenner's prose is the way she makes the absurd lovely--how at the perfect moment, an emu with spring from the bushes. She doesn't traffic in the literary cliches that pass for 'high seriousness' in so much contemporary fiction. Her stories reverberate with the mysteries of art, the beautiful complexities of character, voice, language, and situation that cannot be explained, but only experienced.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 5, 2001
I've been a fan of Wendy Brenner since I first read her story 'I Am the Bear' in New Stories from the South six years ago and have been avidly following her career ever since. Most of the stories in this collection I've read in magazines and other anthologies, but I'm excited to see how she's put those stories together with new ones. That's the joy of Wendy Brenner: her often miraculous vision of a disparate world--our pains and longings, little happenstances of fate, pop culture--and how those things coalesce into something greater that's always luking, untapped, behind our everyday lives. Wendy Brenner sees something that we cannot, and puts it, kindly, on the page for us to read and know. Buy this book, read it, love it. Cry a little and laugh a lot. You won't be sorry, but you might be transformed.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 2, 2001
The stories in Wendy Brenner¿s new collection, PHONE CALLS FROM THE DEAD, are volatile compounds of slice-of-life and supernatural. They recall Raymond Carver and Mary Robison, the art of transforming mundane detail and seeming randomness into emotional depth, but Brenner infuses this tradition with magic entirely her own. Though her deadpan humor nudges us with life¿s absurdities, more serious energy shimmers below the surface--inside computers, tape recorders, thunderstorms, wine bottles, squirrels, an emu, a disembodied nipple. When the energy surges--often--it manifests as both quasi-fantasy and visceral excitement. Merely summarized, stories like 'Awareness' or 'The Human Side of Instrumental Transcommunication' or 'Mr. Puniverse' would sound like quirky episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, but given life in Brenner¿s fiction, the supernatural becomes something much greater than spectacle--it becomes spiritual inspiration for the characters and the reader. Even in 'Mr. Meek,' the collection¿s most brutally grounded story, Brenner¿s brand of spirituality is never quaint, never easy. It¿s dangerous, ever shifting, indefinite. Brenner¿s stories don¿t indulge in anything as conventional as closing epiphanies. Instead they begin with transcendence, then harness it, indulge it, exploit it, make it entirely new, as real and charged as lightning. PHONE CALLS is obsessed with mystery--not its solutions, but the emotional weight that unsolved mystery carries. The narrator in 'Are We Almost There' speaks to an anonymous 'you,' and sensitive readers soon understand that to speculate on the identity of 'you' is entirely off track. Instead, the story culminates in the mystery of longing, the 'you' that cannot be defined but, through its vagueness, is profoundly felt. Beneath the bizarre plots are characters who struggle, as we do, with the hurt and joy of the unknown in the world and in themselves. Like shock waves from the collective unconscious, we feel it too.
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Posted July 2, 2001
I¿ve read Brenner¿s stories ¿ in Oxford American, Story, Best American Short Stories from the South, etc. ¿Nipple¿ is one of the best short stories EVER!!! Nobody captures high school better. Brenner is hilarious without casting judgment on her characters. She takes risks (four squirrel narrators, tied together by the tail ¿ what more do you want?). You never know what you¿ll get with a Brenner story, but you can guarantee that disparate elements will collide and Brenner will help you sort through the rubble. I can¿t wait for the full collection to come out!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.