(Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2018)
At its core, The Surprising Place is a grim yet authentic exploration of the modern American Midwest and the unsatisfied desires that haunt its residents’ interior lives. Malinda McCollum guides readers through the jagged terrain of her characters’ consciousness, plunging in to the most vulnerable and wounded corners through her sharp and cutting prose. The collection illuminates a gritty middle-class experience with an earnest touch that forces readers to see themselves reflected in even the least sympathetic characters. Brimming with unfulfilled hope, McCollum’s stories conclude with unresolved wanting that reverberates long after the book is put down.
Although several stories follow the misadventures of an architect named Green, the pieces that feature him or his family are not presented in chronological order. Readers meet Green as his career destructs, then see him as a hopeful teen living on the brink of promise. They follow the aftermath of Green’s death prior to the tragic event. They see his marriage end before it begins. By presenting the character’s life events in this non-linear structure, McCollum examines the failed results of Greens’ ambitions before the origins of his dreams, stripping the narrative of hope. This structure lends to the collection’s overall tone and theme: a bleak yet authentic exploration of the futile American dream in the contemporary Midwest.
The second half of the collection, entitled “Three Days Dirty,” consists of a trio of chronological stories following a negligent teen named Severa. Her narrative follows her downward spiral: a close encounter with death, a bout of homelessness, and an unwilling part in a stranger’s murder. But unlike the stories following Green and his family, Severa’s story ends on an optimistic note. That said, her shot at redemption remains bleak: while her decision to turn herself in to the police represents a growth of character, it signals a decline in her general situation. Here, the conclusion of Severa’s journey alludes back to the beginning of Green’s. In “He Ain’t Jesus,” Green repeatedly says, “I feel like I’m always wrong. Is that how everybody feels?” The end of Severa’s story seems like an answer to this question, both from her fate and the readers’ understanding of what it signifies.
The collection’s closing piece begins with the question “what if Green doesn’t die?” The story, which explores an alternative reality in which Green survives, opens on a hopeful note but closes on one that readers may interpret as bittersweet. McCollum writes that “Green will dream his new project, plotting its shape and scale. But how do I make it real?” Perhaps she is answering her own question, wondering how to make Green’s survival the true ending to the story. Or perhaps we enter Green’s consciousness in this moment as he wonders how to finally make his dreams come true, now that he has a second chance at life. Ultimately, McCollum suggests that Green’s survival has no influence on the fruition of his dreams. Whether or not he survives, Green – like the rest of collection’s cast – will always fail to turn dreams into reality. By ending the collection on a false new start, McCollum reminds readers of the hopeless cycle her characters are caught in – a cycle that even a second chance at life will, ultimately, fail to break.
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Briana McDonald’s fiction has appeared in The Stonecoast Review, Glassworks Magazine, The Cardiff Review, Rozyln: Short Fiction by Women Writers, and Marathon Literary Review. She is an Associate Editor and a prose reader at The Literary Review.