Dolan Morgan’s That’s When the Knives Come Down is a collection of short stories that seems to have missed almost everyone’s “Best of 2014” list. This is a shame because its true place is at the top of these lists for its passion to discover new territories. Morgan is a brash talent not interested in running over ground already covered by Lorrie Moore, Lydia Davis, George Saunders and other luminaries with experimental flair. Morgan seeks something different, something along the lines of a lost continent to name after himself.
That’s When the Knives Come Down (TWTKCD, for short) is comprised of twelve stories, all of which have appeared in a variety of influential journals. The stories are peopled by desperate characters always on the move across a dissolving landscape. In “Infestation,” a husband overhauls an entire city in order to deal with the wife he lost in the wake of a world overrun by goats. In “Plunge Headlong into the Abyss with Guns Blazing and Legs Tangled,” a strange chasm is discovered which gives local residents access to cable channels that don’t exist, along with a direct route to the void inside themselves. In “Kiss My Annulus,” a man traces a robo-call to a bizarre call-center in Dry Prong, Louisiana, where the boss turns out to be an outsized anus demanding oral supplication.
TWTKCD is not so much a collection of stories as it is a bestiary of tales, each competing to be the wildest of the bunch. Donald Barthelme and Lydia Davis are obvious antecedents. But for the most direct connection one needs to go further back, to the work of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, the Soviet Surrealist whose nested narratives turn back upon themselves with the same bitter comedy as TWTKCD.
With the mutability of the ever-expanding room in Krzhizhanovsky ‘s “Quadraturin,” the “monster” of Morgan’s “Anatomy of the Monster” goes from strange external creature to strange amalgam of “people working some kind of mobile clearance sale” to inexplicable combination of the two. Morgan’s mutability suggests an anxiety that always withdraws, no matter how hard any of us tries to possess it.
When the townspeople of “Anatomy of a Monster” tire of being deceived, the carpet bagging doctor and the main character embark on a bizarre subterranean ocean voyage that would not be out of place in Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym. When their journey ends in clouds of cannon-fire and exploded sales-representatives, it is clear that they were never meant to escape. Their heroism was their unwavering engagement with the monster, without regard for the consequences.
Morgan is most successful when he improvises on a single premise. In “How to Have Sex on Other Planets,” the standout of the collection, the speaker takes the reader on a journey from Mercury all the way to Pluto. His tongue firmly embedded in his cheek, he maintains a clean line throughout that incorporates dense scientific information with wicked self-help bromides.
Of the lovemaking possibilities of the innermost planet, he offers: “At 350°F, Mercury is going to be hot, but don’t be nervous…Ease into it. There’s lube if necessary, but it probably won’t be–on this planet you must fuck with your mouth and your voice. Why? Because Mercury commands all forms of verbal, written and printed communication. Time for mercurial phone sex.”
In “Tuning Forks,” another standout, an incessant humming noise, which the protagonist thinks only he can hear, brings chaos to the city, then sexual bliss, then sexual chaos:
Charles felt disgusting cheating on Sarah while he was right there inside of her, but he was undoubtedly more in the sound than in her, and the noise was certainly deeper within her than he could ever be. Neither of them had a chance against that kind of intimacy.
Morgan should be commended for never losing touch with the human. Even in TWTKCD’s less accomplished pieces where the central metaphorical path is muddied by too many baroque side-trips, there is always a fully rounded character fighting to connect on the most basic level. In pop cultural terms, his approach is reminiscent of the “Twilight Zone” or the recent BBC import “Black Mirror,” two shows that specialize in real people struggling against surreal circumstances. Readers may not like the strange places Morgan takes them. They should nonetheless take comfort in the fact that his darkest tropes are lit by the bright light of character.
That’s When the Knives Come Down is Morgan’s debut collection. While the pieces vary in terms of subject matter, they all share the same desire to escape the existential “nothing” to which Morgan dedicates the book. The particular details of nothing vary from story to story, but a few stories into TWTKCD, the reader begins to recognize it, despite the cleverness of the disguise. The reader also realizes that the weirdness of these tales isn’t weirdness for its own sake. As with the opening scene of “The Cell,” when the main character speaks with a blade to his throat, nothing isn’t a philosophical abstraction; it is an urgent, carnal reality.
Morgan ends TWTKCD on a grace note that gives the collection a circular, almost Ouroborosquality. The emotional wound of the protagonist of “Infestation,” the lead-off piece, seems healed by the love interest in “Nuée Ardente,” TWTKCD’s concluding piece. Those of a Formalist mindset would disagree with such intertextuality, but within the imaginative landscape that Morgan creates, it makes perfect sense.
That’s When the Knives Come Down is recommended for readers of Mike Young and Ryan Call or anyone who enjoys high-literary weirdness with heart.