There’s a Bob Dylan song about umbrellas and crime, darkness and climbing, and the flow of that song, the flow which that song is about–the narrative form of dreams, the logic of their progression, without “great connections” or “intricate schemes”–is a useful notion for making sense of what D. Harlan Wilson is doing in this collection of short, strange stories, each its own dream, in a sense, unfolding in the manner of dreams, laced with absurdity and non sequitur, yet engaging, too, in the specific lineament of genre, of what is now called the “speculative.”
You walk into a theater and realize you’re the star of the movie, or a motel clerk tries to have you arrested because you don’t have your key. “Near the restrooms, a contortionist juggles minute koalas while dishing out smoked sausages for $3 a pop. Takers are legion, and they’re not unhappy with the taste, given the proper medley of condiments.” This is the stuff of Wilson’s stories, but the most successful ones are the most stripped down. There’s the case of the man who “screwed an antenna into the soft spot on an infant’s skull and tried to get a signal,” for instance, or the child who wants to crawl back inside his mother’s womb, or the man who denies the existence of elbows, who has something to do with a bridge engineered out of Cornish hens….
The collection begins with an experimental tweak of genre, a piece called “6 Word Scifi,” which reads, in its entirety, “Mechanical flâneurs goosestep across the prairie.” There’s quite a bit going on here, and, to some interpreters at least, it is a string of words thick with allusion. Sometimes, however, Wilson can misstep with his attempts at some sort of witty meta level. On flying squirrels, for instance, he writes, “One should not do battle with arboreal gliders, theoretical or otherwise (ref. Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus), no matter what they’re wearing.” But perhaps the point is that Delueze and Guattari references–or Arabic script, or definitions of terms from Japanese cinema–do turn up in the genre and, likewise, do turn up in dreams. That which is jarring, here, also packs a gentler, in-joke nudge, as when descriptions devolve to blunt declaration of “Animé nights and scikungfi battle royals.”
Mid-book there is a story deserving special note: “The Sister,” presented in graphic novel fashion via the artistry of Skye Thorstenson. These are gorgeous, disquieting, and addictive pages. I only wish the entire book had been told this way, with the dreams visible on the page, an anteater, a gash for a face. Here the hallucinatory logic takes on even more haunting resonance. While elsewhere Wilson gives us the dangerously pendulous stray breast of a nurse or all those strangers tying notes to bricks, it is the image of the tangled birdcage, the leg sticking out of it, that will linger longest, like the afterimage of a particularly baffling and unshakable dream.