Viral: Stories

  • By Emily Mitchell
  • W.W. Norton & Company
  • 208 pp.
  • Reviewed by Liz Prato
  • October 20, 2015

This clever collection is full of big ideas and small, telling details.

Viral: Stories

The highest compliment for a literary metaphor is to call it “organic”; to imply it doesn’t draw too much attention to itself or the effort that may have gone into its creation and perfect placement. The metaphors in Emily Mitchell’s new short story collection, Viral, smash that criterion: They do call attention to themselves because of their breathtaking veracity. They rise above the level of metaphor and become what they really are.

In “States,” written in the form of a travel guide for tourists from an unnamed country, “The trees whisper messages among themselves, but they are not old enough yet to have anything more profound to say than human beings do, so it is not advisable to spend much time listening to them. The mountains, by contrast, are exceedingly old. But they don’t talk very often.”

Mitchell allows us to believe that the trees straining to set down roots in North Dakota and the redwoods whispering to the sky in California are not just stand-ins for the hearts and hopes of American people, but are also living, breathing characters with wants and desires and fears.

In “My Daughter and Her Spider,” a robotic spider is not merely a symbol of our culture’s various panaceas for the emotional tumult of children (distracting electronics, Big Pharma, etc.), but also an actual mechanical spider capable of separating a mother from her child. The narrator declares, “I did not ever like having it around,” but also must admit that Spider made life with her daughter easier.

“During the days she was much calmer. Her fits of rage became less frequent, then stopped altogether.” What do we do when the cure for the discomfort of our children (and, consequently, ourselves) also intensifies the isolation between us? Welcome to Modern America.

Many of Mitchell’s stories are less plot-driven and more dependent on the building of ideas, like “On Friendship,” which explores the founding and failings of relationships through sections with seemingly divergent titles like “Facebook” and “War” and “Recipes.” The story “If You Cannot Go to Sleep” itself reads like a recipe from a woman struggling to slumber. Every solution she tries, every roadblock she encounters, has the cumulative effect of asking what it means to love, to be afraid, and, ultimately, what it means to rest.

On the surface, many of Mitchell’s stories appear fantastical or absurd, but the concepts never veer far from our present reality. Don’t you suppose that there really are retail corporations that discipline their employees for not smiling enough? And who’s in charge of judging and enforcing an employee’s cheerfulness? With Resting Bitch Face permeating social media, the premise of “Smile Report” doesn’t sound so farfetched.

These sardonic swipes at consumerist and patriot culture will inevitably draw comparisons to George Saunders and Miranda July — great company to be in, for sure. But Mitchell has developed a unique voice. No matter how satirical or abstract the stories become, there is a seriousness, a sadness, which betrays the isolation her characters feel from the natural world, from each other, from themselves.

Then again, in the title story, “Viral,” sadness is precisely what provides unification among the lost and lonely parents whose children perished in a mass suicide. “It was a sound like the ocean rising up in a storm to burst over the land, unreasonable, unreasoning and bottomless: the sound of grief.”

The unfolding of facts in “Viral” are also an example of the frustrations I felt with many of Mitchell’s stories. Although the first line of the story tells us that “none of the parents had any idea what was coming,” the reader isn’t told what, exactly, happened to/with these children until the second-to-last page.

There are allusions to “perpetrators” and the teenagers not understanding the consequence of their actions, leading the reader down wrong road after wrong road (was it a mass shooting? Was it a terrorist attack? I’m not even entirely sure it was planned as a mass suicide, or if it was an attempt at a glorious stunt that went horribly awry).

Perhaps Mitchell is trying to mimic the parents’ lack of understanding about their children’s lives and deaths, but I kept thinking how much more emotionally invested I’d be if I knew, from the beginning, what had actually happened. I want to be fully immersed in the emotional stakes of a story, to know at least as much as the narrator knows, and not be left wondering what’s going on and what it all means. I admit, I spent a fair amount of time (more time than I wanted to, at least) feeling as if I wasn’t smart enough to fully understand some of these tales.

On the whole, though, Mitchell’s prose is skilled and even courageous. Instead of being stymied by the concern that a premise might be “too out there,” as many less confident writers are, she deftly and beautifully explores the world of “what if?” Emily Mitchell makes us all aware that the imagination we possess is art itself — all we need is a medium for expression.

Liz Prato is author of Baby’s on Fire, a book of short stories. She lives with furry feline friends and her best friend/husband, who is a bookseller, musician, and writer. She dreams of being in Paris or Kaua'i pretty much every day.

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