[This hilarious collection of surreal stories is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: Patrick Somerville

2010, Featherproof Books

Filed under: Literary, Humor, Sci-Fi, Short Stories

I know the pain of reading a book that’s been called “funny” because it offers nothing else, and I know how genuine comedy needs nothing else to captivate. And so I take it very seriously when I say that Patrick Somerville’s story collection, The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, is hilarious.

And while there’s a lot more to this collection, the nature and tone and quality of its humor is what makes it great. Unlike the straining, jesterly comedy of “comic novels” like The Sheriff of Yrnameer, Somerville’s humor doesn’t compromise the writing or the story, but only ever adds to it. For example, this passage, from the perspective of a young exisentialist trying to understand the world, who decides to go to church:

Suddenly there I am, sitting in a pew. Everyone stands up and sings from the book and I stand up with the book and move my mouth and pretend. I can feel the waxy lipstick smeared on my lips. So many sounds come out of us. We try to use our magic and tear open a portal that leads up to the center of the universe. We are attempting to speak to its core. We try for a few minutes, then sit down.

That’s not just a funny line, it’s an aching character looking for salvation where she should be looking for it, wanting it desperately, and being denied. Denial is a big part of the comedy here. Somerville doesn’t let anyone—not even himself—get away with anything. Like this moment, when the title of the collection comes up, and gets undercut immediately:

“I make models of little boys and sometimes their fathers making models of the solar system.”

“So you make the universe in miniature in miniature, then,” he says.

“No,” I say. “I make the solar system in miniature in miniature. But that’s close.”

When the young church-going woman from above talks to the priest after the service, he leaves her with this:

He nods, then squints across the room. “Not all those who wander are lost,” he says. He’s still squinting. I wonder if he’s practiced this squint—a squint-stare off into the metaphysical distance. I’m realizing he’s kind of handsome. But then again, it might just be that he cares about something.

“What is that?” I ask. “Did Jesus Christ say that?”

“No,” he says. “Bilbo Baggins said that.”

This humor comes not from a desire to entertain others, but from a need to relieve pain. Somerville’s characters are desperate and often facing down death or at least, as one character says, “a key moment in all lives—when the optimism of your dreams becomes stupid.”

It’s clear that Somerville has ambitious goals for this collection. In his acknowledgments, he says, “This book is an attempt at answering a handful of worrisome questions.” While there are a few quick stories that seem more like jokes—like the one about the alien spaceship captain who hits a wrong button and accidentally blows up the planet he was assigned to make contact with—the majority of these pieces use far-fetched premises and satirical characters in order to drill down into the deepest layers of human insecurity.

And so the awkward conversations a businessman has with his colleagues, with a waiter, with everyone—they are not awkward and funny to amuse us readers, they are awkward and funny because that’s the by-product of the businessman trying to stifle his aching loneliness any way he can. Because it’s that or get furious at the world, and his anger has already cost him his wife and son.

Here’s a passage from a story called “Hair University,” about a pair of balding friends:

“I’m a Norwood Six, Danny. Six.” He sips his soda dramatically. “Don’t talk to me about dangerous.”

He’s recently explained the Norwood Scale to me. Basically—and I’m assuming this was all thought up by a man named Norwood—there are varying degrees of baldness, and along the continuum are Norwoods 1 through 8. There’s even a 3A, which denotes, I believe, a very specific pattern of hairline-regression combined with crown-thinning. Different enough from Norwood 3 to get its own subcategory. Not unlike how you might measure cancer. What are you? I’m a Norwood 4. I don’t know whether this Norwood hung, shot, or drowned himself.

These two are not clowns, their lives are not comedies. The narrator jokes because he takes it so very seriously, and the prognosis is so very grim. One of these men is literally about to risk his life by undergoing a dangerous procedure because he just can’t stand being bald. It’s deeply comic and deeply tragic at the same time.

Interestingly, the last story, “The Machine For Understanding Other People,” is Universe’s least funny and its longest, at nearly 70 pages, but also quite possibly the best story of the collection. It’s a story about a weird contraption—like an old-timey diving helmet attached to a dowsing rod—that allows the wearer to understand other people on a deeply personal level (thus the title). It features the weakest Somerville joke by far (“says the messenger, whose name is (unfortunately) Dick Ball”), and yet it’s captivating in a way that none of the other stories can match.

Partly, it’s so good because its length allows its characters to develop more complexities, and partly because Somerville does not allow any of these stories to spin out a literary wishy-washy nothingness—they all drive hard toward the horizon. For instance, this last story features a woman who inherits billions of dollars and the assignment to make the world a better place; she starts by dumping 200 million dollars in gold bullion into the ocean, to create jobs for treasure hunters.

Beyond the frequently bizarre details, the universal throughline here is that Somerville’s fiction grows from characters. When those characters are funny (and even when they aren’t), it works because he never cracks jokes just to get laughs. In Universe, the characters are experiencing the most important, exhausting, nerve-wracking moments of their lives, and when they’re funny, that humor comes from the teetering precipice of the abyss.

Turns out the edge of the abyss can be pretty hilarious.

Similar Reads: CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, by George Saunders; Museum of the Weird, by Amelia Gray; The Knife Thrower, by Steven Millhauser