Mothers & Other Monsters: Stories
by Maureen F. McHugh
Published by Small Beer Press
271 pages, 2006
The Case of the Missing Monster
Reviewed by Andi Shechter
Mothers & Other Monsters left me with hugely ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, I found several of the stories in the anthology oddly unfinished. McHugh has a tendency to offer up a situation -- sometimes sad, sometimes worrisome, occasionally baffling -- and end her story of that situation with no resolution. As a result, I felt that I was missing something. As a reader, I know that short stories have a different rhythm, a different beat than novels; things happen in a different way and things aren't always as expected, since you don't have time to lay out subplots and backstory. Still, I felt somehow unsophisticated upon finishing Mothers & Other Monsters, as if I didn't somehow get that there was a message or a deeper meaning to a story that didn't end.
The ambivalence was then amplified by my admiration for McHugh's writing. Pure and simple -- and I mean that in more than one way -- she's a captivating writer. Her writing in this volume wasn't ornate, she didn't use a lot of literary or other tricks to get the readers attention, she just laid it out there. The language is clean and linear and quite often riveting. Even when I ended up, as I occasionally did, saying "huh?" at the end, wondering where the last paragraph was.
It's hard to explain a short story without mucking it up for you like those endless movie trailers that lay out every plot detail, saving from having to actually having to pay to see the film. One story here was two pages long, another four; reviewing them would be silly. But in reading "Wicked" where a woman's groceries go up in flames, I was left with the "huh?" wondering what I'd missed. So I read it again. And felt a little thick, because I couldn't see it.
I had far more success with several stories that were so skillfully narrated, I just enjoyed the voice. "Interview: On Any Given Day" purports to be a Web interview with a teenager explaining a series of events. Nicely interspersed with little notes that have hyperlinks and musical cues and little boxed explanations of certain details. The voice here -- belonging to Emma, the narrator -- was so believably, annoyingly, distressingly teenage, not very bright or aware "I dunno, I mean, you know?" that I just felt itchy throughout the whole story. There are "futuristic" elements here -- one of the few stories that contains "real" sf content -- where Emma tells us about Terry, who's a "geezer" or a "boomer" who's apparently had treatments that make him young again and he wants to hang out with young people. But again, what happens? I found myself asking.
I'm not a reader who needs the literary equivalent of fireworks to make a story hum. Most of my short story reading is in the mystery genre, which is often a very structured sort of reading; there are conventions within the genre so that you expect certain things. Not always -- and I can and do cope with the occasional "huh?" there as well but, well, shucks, I guess I do read short stories expecting some structure which represents a beginning a middle and an end. And I feel dorky for feeling that way.
While I found few monsters, mother or otherwise, in the collection, there was a huge sense of people feeling trapped. There are stories here of raising a retarded child -- a child who was intended to be a replacement for the sister from whom she was cloned. The sister was a gymnast, of standard intelligence, and her mother is aware, as she says, that the act of cloning that gave her her daughter Cara was an act of a woman "who was not sane," who had lost a beloved daughter. Cara's presence however, is something everyone remarks on, for better or worse. The story though, "Frankenstein's Daughter" focuses on Cara's brother Robert; and the ending, again, left me groping for understanding. "Ancestor Money," about a woman after her death (a story that reminded me of the novel Brief History of the Dead) ended without, for me, ending. "Eight-Legged Story" is a strongly voiced story about a stepmother trying to deal with her husband's difficult 9 year old son. It's wonderfully told but I did not understand why it stopped where it did. Again with the "huh?"
I liked several of the stories simply because they were good. "The Lincoln Train" told of a woman escaping the south, helped by people who were not inclined to help her, but did. "Nekropolis" is another story about escape, set in a very strange time and place where people can be "jessed" -- sold to someone and made to care about them, "impressed" by a compulsion that makes you loyal to your master or mistress. Creepy, interesting, well realized but some of the story came out of a nowhere I would have liked explained. Who allowed "jessing" and why? Why would people live in a necropolis, among the tombs? And what is a "harni"? I felt like I was reading an excerpt from a novel where all the backstory had been left out. "In the Air" worked for me even if, again, it wasn't quite clear which reality was the real one. Is Michael, the narrator's late brother real in some way, a figment of the narrator's imagination or a ghost? Is she seeing something or is she experiencing some sort of hallucination or psychotic break where she sees dead people?
"Laika Come Back Safe" is told by a little girl with a dog named Lacey and a friend named Tye (the title referring to a "dream" that she had and her interest in the Russian dog who was sent into space and never returned) has an intriguing twist: is Tye what he says he is or is he a very weird kid with a amazing imagination? McHugh leaves you to decide. It's probably my favorite in the collection because it works whichever explanation you accept. And if I'd just picked up the book to flit thorugh, I would not have read "Presence." This story, of a woman whose husband has Alzheimer's, hypnotized and at the same time depressed me thoroughly with its matter-of-fact presentation of the day-to-day misery of the disease. I finished it and respect McHugh for what she did, resolving things but in a manner that made me sit and think. And think and think.
I don't know if I was impatient with the collection, or perhaps I'm not its target audience since I felt, perhaps wrongly, that I want stories that conclude, to end a little more clearly. Not neatly -- I can deal with loose ends -- but I required something that was missing. | August 2006
Andi Shechter has been a publicist, chat host, interviewer, convention-planner, essayist and reviewer. She lives in Seattle with far too many books, an old-but-cute purple computer, not enough soft toys (including a small but select hedgehog and gorilla collection), many figure skating videotapes and an esoteric collection of hot sauces. There's a Hugo Award on her mantelpiece which belongs to her partner, cartoonist and artist Stu Shiffman.