Lost Objects by Marian Womack (Collection)
Desolation. Loss. Change. Birds. This is a wonderfully linked collection, not always in setting or style, but in overarching theme and feel. There are a number of stories that deal with decline, with climate disaster, with extinction, with reactions to emptiness. But they unfold in very different worlds and in very different ways. The collection’s organization heightens this, with the first (and far larger) section dealing with visions of the future, with characters staring down the barrel of destruction on a planetary scale. The opening story, “Orange Dogs,” helps to set the mood as it follows a man in a drowning city, global waters set to submerge everything even as people refuse to really face the reality they have wrought. But again and again the collection offers up stories of worlds in decline. Perhaps my favorite piece in the collection, “The Ravisher, The Thief,” imagines a world where people keep trained predatory birds and a church which is supposed to guide people toward a better existence has come across an imminent reality that will not fit with its narrative of creation. The character, caught between duty and family, belief and despair, has to pick a way forward when everything seems toxic and deadly.
I’ve actually read one of the pieces in here before, the creepy and desolate “Frozen Planet,” which finds an expedition stranded in a situation and hunted and haunted by something uncertain and unstoppable. These are stories that recognize the damage that has been done by people, by our own reluctance to face the harm that we do. The characters are trapped by their own fear of losing the world they were told to expect. They don’t want to shift their expectations, because of how unfair it is, because their main sin was being born to this time when all of humanity’s debts are being called due. The stories are chilling, hopeful in some degrees but never of a full recovery. Never of a return to the “glory days” when humanity spoiled without evidence of repercussion. Instead, the hope that remains is in forging ahead, and learning from past mistakes, and trying to save what’s possible, even if it’s precious little indeed.
And the second section, grounded by the aching “Kingfisher,” brings the focus on the contemporary, to the intimate ways that people yearn and are failed. And it highlights something about the story that makes it often difficult—the lack of community. The characters in these stories are isolated. Alone. Connected to ghosts or to memories or to hopes that didn’t turn out. And the main character of Kingfisher brings things back to Earth in order to reveal that lack of community and what it means. How it leaves people vulnerable. How they can then be used, manipulated, and abused. How they can lose their spark and their hope. As a writer especially “Kingfisher” is a gut punch of a read, about the struggles to find time when societal pressures push you away from doing what you want, what you need, and toward what is expected. And really it captures how fraught and isolating experience writing can be, always struggling to make it a priority in a world where it is not. Where first must come money, and gender roles, and chores, and every other fucking thing. And yeah, it’s real and it’s wrenching and it’s quite, quite good.
The collection for me, then, really doesn’t offer a lot of direction away from this yawning maw of isolation and despair. Instead it traces the borders of it, describes its inky depths, and then turns away. And that’s the moment I feel is understated but incredibly powerful. Because despite the characters not finding community, despite them being left with the same problems, the same broken worlds, the same shattered homes...they go on. They turn away from the bleak nothingness that might engulf them and they push on, unsure of what that might mean but still willing to go, to try, to search for something better. And really, it’s a collection full of frustration and loneliness teetering on the edge of despair, and yet it doesn’t fall in. Instead it confronts the reader with this precarious reality, and seems to ask what comes next. A wonderful collection!