When I read really great fiction or watch a really good play or movie, whether it’s new or years old, I find that the work speaks to whatever is going on in the world. That’s When The Knives Come Down, the debut collection of short stories by Dolan Morgan, certainly fits the bill. Though the dozen story collection is diverse in narratives and tone, the common theme in all the stories is the relationship of people to place. The way Morgan tells it, we create our places and our places create us and the interplay never ends.
Here at Dag we’ve been writing about and discussing the event in Ferguson. I ‘m sure you all see how Knives struck me as particularly poignant right about now. For all our vaunted mobility, we all have to be some place all of the time and our location can be very important.
Morgan’s collection opens with “Infestation.” We are in the future, I think, in a world that has been ravaged by goats. Our hero is a city planner who works for “the Coalition,” which is the group that seems to be running things. The politics isn’t so important, nor is the source of the goat infestation. By the time the story starts the goats are gone and so is Jenna, wife to Mr. Hunter, our hero. Mr. Hunter must now navigate his city without goats and without his wife. He does this by planning the city around the physical and emotional absences left by Jenna’s disappearance. When he builds the city around his losses, other people respond. Mr. Hunter finds some measure of success.
In “Tuning Forks” a persistent humming sound pervades New York City, putting everyone on edge and pushing some people beyond it. The story begins with Charles, who has just had an affair, cheating on his love Sarah with a woman name Alicia. Charles explains himself:
“If he loved her, then he wouldn’t have slept with that woman, Alicia, he knew. Someone else must have. It’s logic, simple. But in the end that meant that someone who didn’t love Sarah lived inside his body – which Charles didn’t like at all.”
Is this simply the typical rationalization of the cheater, the thief or the rogue? Well, yes. But there is more going on. Later in the story, as the hum has grown louder, Morgan describes an office scene:
“People were inexplicably not themselves, they reported. Sound irritability syndrome, or SIS, was in full effect. Charles spent only one day back at work, but there, people were constantly lashing out and apologizing afterward or screwing up their work and having to fix it later. Suddenly, everything is excusable. The things people did were not their own actions, they felt, but a mix of them and the sound together, and since everyone else already accepted the malice of the sound, it made sense that people were behaving badly.”
In “Investment Banking In Reverse,” the world has been overrun by debt collectors with all but a few carrying financial burdens they can never hope to surmount. The only hope, for most, is for people to challenge their “Sally May” representatives to a bare knuckle boxing match. But the Sally May boxers never lose.
There’s also a story about an abyss into nothingness that opens up in the middle of a town, a tale of archetypal arch rivals with knives at each other’s throats and a useful guide about how to have sex on any planet in the solar system. Morgan is a poet and its shows in his prose.
Reading this book reminded me of David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme (who I read because Doc Cleveland told me to), Don DeLillo, Nikolai Gogol, Franz Kafka and Albert Goldbarth, and I say that only to set the author in company, not to imply that there’s anything derivative here. Morgan is a true original.
The book is published by Aforementioned Productions, a talented small press that put obvious care into the work. You might not see the kind of press on this that the book deserves so if you follow my advice and like what you read, do tell your friends. This will only be a thing if we make it a thing.