‘THE DARK DARK’
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($15)
Samantha Hunt’s three novels read like fables deeply rooted in reality: A young woman in a working-class seaside town believes that she is a mermaid (“The Seas”); Nikola Tesla nears his death and thinks back on his life while staying at the Hotel New Yorker (“The Invention of Everything Else”); and a woman who refuses to speak leads her niece on an epic walk to an unknown destination (“Mr. Splitfoot”). The short stories in Hunt’s first collection, “The Dark Dark,” are mostly just as beguiling as those novels, and they wear their magical flourishes even more lightly.
Hunt’s stories are peopled with women who don’t fully trust or understand their bodies or their minds, or the places where their bodies and minds overlap. One character who is thinking of getting pregnant tells herself that reproduction is “simply a matter of hormones.” Then she thinks: “But saying it’s hormones is the same as saying witchcraft or sorcery. What’s the difference between hormones and magic potions? Neither of them are believable or explainable.” Another woman, who has children, thinks: “My body’s coursing with secret genes and hormones and proteins. My body made eyeballs and I have no idea how.”
The physical metamorphoses these women go through range from the literal — pregnancies abound — to the figurative: The narrator of “Beast” feels herself becoming a deer late each night, next to her husband in bed. Perhaps that’s not so figurative, though, because in Hunt’s tipsy world, it seems that the transformation is actually happening: “I am very careful, very quiet, planting my hooves on our bed.”
When they aren’t marveling at the changes in their bodies, they’re tracking the often surreal stratagems of their minds. The narrator of “A Love Story” ponders explanations for why she and her husband haven’t had sex in eight months. “The first reason, the wildest, craziest reason, is that maybe my husband is just gone,” she thinks. “Maybe one night a while back I kicked him out after a fight and maybe, even if I didn’t mean everything I said, maybe he went away and hasn’t come back yet.” She adds, “Maybe I’m just imagining him here still.”
Hunt is a deceptively experimental writer. Her sentences flow, her people seem real, her plots more or less cohere. But she is nearly always playing with form on a cellular level. “All Hands,” as it starts, is narrated by a Coast Guard officer who falls off an oil tanker into the water and struggles to find his way out from beneath its enormous hull. It abruptly shifts to being narrated by a woman who is helping counsel 13 pregnant girls, all students at the same high school. Hunt trusts us to figure out the perspective switch without any hand-holding, and to recognize the story’s larger connections as they are patiently disclosed. Other stories contain quiet echoes of one another: Two scenes involve couples whose bedtime rituals include checking each other for ticks.
The first and last stories are twinned, and they are the book’s most blatant meta maneuver, although you don’t know it at the start. The opener, “The Story Of,” is straightforward enough: A woman receives a visit from an unnerving stranger who ends up having a connection to her husband. The collection’s finale, “The Story of Of,” not only soon diverges from the opener in its details but also warps into a recursive exercise in which the characters end up reading their own story in a notebook as it tumbles back to its beginning and restarts again and again. It could be optioned by Charlie Kaufman to turn into one of his hall-of-intellectual-mirrors movies.
Like any daring writer worth her salt, Hunt now and then launches a dud firecracker. “Love Machine,” about a hyper-realistic robot sent in to flirt with, and apprehend or kill, the Unabomber, feels both goofier and more portentous than it is probably meant to, and it resists the emotional investment Hunt’s other stories easily invite.
“Cortes the Killer,” arguably the most realistic story in the book, is also arguably the strongest. At just over 20 pages, its tale of a brother and sister dealing with the fallout of their father’s death from lung cancer whispers at the richness of a full-length novel. Its climax is built around an arresting image of an animal in distress, one of Hunt’s many haunting visions. (In another, she imagines millions of young girls walking to the sea, boarding “an armada of waiting tankers, barges, ships and tugs,” never to be seen again.)
Hunt at her best is a lot like the uncle of one character, who is described as “so good at imagining things” that “he makes the imagined things real.” Hunt’s dreamlike images operate in service to earthbound ideas. These stories are deeply imbued with feminist themes. Without being oppressively explicit about it (mostly), Hunt gets at the myriad ways women work to keep their self-possession in the face of social and interpersonal expectations.
“You may ask,” one narrator tells us of the co-op of voices in her head, “Are these women who bombard me at night real or do I imagine them? You may eventually realize that is a stupid question.”