Sometimes it feels nice to have a book anchor you on the first page. Such is how Spinning to Mars by Meg Pokrass begins with its first in a string of microfiction (all less than a page long) titled “Ride to Mars.” It concludes with two sentences that open the door to everything that follows as Pokrass writes, “Some dangle the promise of a ride to Mars. Others dangle the promise of home.” Then comes a series of sparkling fictions that tread this tightrope between adventure beyond the confines of adulthood and the yearning for actual home.
Humans and Their Familiars
Pokrass’ microfictions range from one paragraph up to a few paragraphs in length. Each excels in establishing a premise through its title and opening line before swinging wide the doors to their expansive humanity. They function not so much as stories but as thought bubbles, crowding out the edges of the pages. Many of the characters wish or wonder at what might have been. Missed connections, regrets, or current troubles. Maybe all three. Sweetening the pot, cats make frequent appearances, hovering at the periphery of multiple tales like the familiars in a dungeon crawl.
“Teeth” resonates from adolescence as a young girl’s crooked teeth, fixed too late, haunt her days. Those missed kisses due to bad teeth belong to someone else. Someone she wasn’t then and isn’t now. No safe home for who she is. Later, the story “Rupture” concludes by admitting, right after a cat exits scene right, that “and there is so much wrong.” If the book’s string of characters needed a unifying catchphrase a careful reader would look no farther.
Wry, Sad, Lively
Pokrass is masterful in balancing the defeat and longing every character experiences with moments of wit and humor. Exhibit one is “Unexpected Wisdom on the Phone”, whose entire conceit is a Puritan sex joke that ends in sadness. Still, to read is to laugh. And in this consistent delivery Pokrass creates a series of grayed-out lives that yet explode with compelling things to see.
The shortness of the pieces begs return reads. Picking these stories up presents new angles, new reactions that reward a wakeful engagement on every page. You begin to notice the polish, the glint, how the sentences have been wrenched mercilessly into prime position. It would be a mistake to think the shortness of the stories means they were easy to write or carelessly constructed. Each sparkles and is determined to carry the book. Taken together, this is astonishingly good fiction.
In the book’s swan song piece “Truce”, a woman is eating a lobster after trying to connect with her father. At the end, perhaps finding stable ground, she, “Raises a severed leg to the sky.” Sure, the lobster had to die. Had to be eviscerated for her pleasure or at least her distraction. But there’s life. A joke, a series of cruelties, a series of victories. Perhaps all of them at once.
Spinning to Mars is wound taut, full of surprises. Yet in a winking way, as if Pokrass knows you’ve been where her characters are. Might still be there. Might never escape. But that doesn’t mean you can’t hope for Mars. Or even something like a home on this bewildering planet.