Reviewed by Loie Rawding
Soft Skull Press 128 pp.
In an independent literary landscape that so often obsessively maps the body through language (of which I am a contributing member) it is with surprising relief that I dip my toes into the twenty-six brief stories of Nicolette Polek’s debut collection, Imaginary Museums. With composed brevity and a hip, off-brand optimism, Polek mines a bottomless crevasse of depressive inclinations and self-imposed disembodiment. From the depths, she yanks a lamp that is so lit it proves bright enough to reveal the reader’s own isolations with insight, but isn’t too hot as to burn the skin. The reader is made to feel as safe as the vignettes’ conveyor belts behind layers of glass, scrims, walls, and doors. You are permitted to leave the page chuckling, while still gazing out the window wondering if you should dare re-enter this terrifying reality. Polek expresses her fictional priorities in a sort of generations-old style by blending the suggestively traumatic with a “Sometimes falling is a kind of freedom” humor. Reading this collection is a bit like playing hide and seek with a potential lover you are too eager to sleep with: said lover finds you hiding behind a tree easily enough, but when it’s your turn to seek, they’ve simply and succinctly disappeared without so much as a kiss on the cheek.
Polek’s third-person portraits include the young and the old, the single and the coupled, the exhaustively human and the tiny animals that observe us in secret ritual. Meanwhile, the few first-person narratives strive for a more contemporary interrogation, a sort of “Us versus The-Objects-That-Proliferate-Around-Us-For-No-Reason” loop that you may have already been thinking about but couldn’t quite articulate. Imaginary Museums is playful, balancing on the edge of banality. And with this risk comes the most refreshing reward. Yes, dear Reader, it is okay to feel the impending doom of social and environmental collapse while admitting that “Not every human experience is inherently valuable.” In being granted this permission, the reader can push on, finding a delicate and joyful appreciation for, say, an over-crowded supermarket in “Grocery Story”: A group of people circle their carts around a watermelon display like a death dance, and a small girl stares at him as she crawls out from under a table, clutching a salami.
Or the delights of a first date in “Garden Party”:Their hands warm from the thermos the way hands warm from hands. Instead of a kiss, they prolong eye contact, smile excessively, nod often, and wait.
Yes, it is okay to play and laugh and be quiet sometimes! That our potential for delight is so often fused with dread is laid bare in Polek’s direct prose style. She balances an early post-modern tone, infusing her scenes with a healthy dose of absurdity while exposing sincere interest in there being no single normal; that being average is, perhaps, a fantasy.
Polek does not necessarily contribute an experience of any one gender or another in the radical sense. She does not put much, if any, political spin on the malleable environments that make up this slim collection. Rather, she presents glimpses of characters that refute the white male tradition by simply never existing in it in the first place. There are no apologies, no poetic overhauls of the human condition, just existences teeming with active verbs, juicy sounds, and lush (if spare) imagery: Not a particularly exceptional garden but a garden gardenly enough to set the scene for things to bloom.
Like Lydia Davis or Sabrina Orah Mark, Polek meditates on universal themes with the wry concision of short film, letting honest, specific images carry the burdensome philosophical weight. Her characters are neither lofty, privileged, nor especially fascinating. They are open and approachable, if a little unnerving like a stranger may be. In “Girls I No Longer Know” (which has followed me around these last few days), a basic list story makes various females glow like ghosts I’d like to have a drink with: The girl who clapped at the sunset. The girl who tucked a pearl under her tongue while she slept. The girls who never slept and became a spiral.
Or are these girls really just facets of the voice that introduces them, as she tries to understand her own legacy? The girl in my mother who disappeared over time and the girl who tried to find her.
Polek’s experience as an only child of Czechoslovakian emigrants also inhabits the book. Divided into four sections, “Miniature Catastrophes,” “American Interiors,” “Slovak Sceneries,” and “Library of Lost Things,” the reader navigates a loosely organized time and space, opening a series of doors into rooms built by memory, alienation, and constriction of one’s language, one’s limiting body, or all those ironies that are completely out of one’s control. “American Interiors” features the title story which concentrates these themes into one suburban woman’s search for solace in curated spaces of mundanity: Annie went online and collected videos—snowstorm footage, tours of walk-in industrial freezers, cold-water faucets. Sitting still in a leather chair, with her feet in a dish of ice water, she closed her eyes, admiring the cold.
A literal numbing of her body has granted Polek’s character freedom to translate and accept the unknown future as a collage of objects, hidden passions, failed loves, and fluid boundaries.
These stories—which could qualify as flash fictions at rarely more than two or three pages—have a surrealism that nods to Polek’s passion for the “richly weird” happenings of daily life, as well as her studies in music and film. In “Field Notes,” the reader traipses through a controlled “Nature Study Area” where sensations of being lost evaporate into the open air: There are old oak trees around a pond that make opening-door sounds—like visitors—when the wind blows. Erica tries to listen to the river sounds but gets distracted by the rhythm of her breath.
Or in “Love Language,” when an impending plane crash transforms into a lyric dreamscape: Outside, the sky gradually shifts to a vibrant magenta. Outside, the clouds become spherical and silver. The plane appears to be going slowly, as though moving through something thick. A strange feeling spreads through the cabin, like a body ache.
I enjoyed reading several pieces out loud as they lend themselves to an orality that approaches the parable without making me feel like I’m being told how to feel or behave. These stories will whisper to a reader of worlds that are apart from—yet mirror—our own worlds in which each little glimpse retains a sacred quality in part because the book’s hierarchy of sanctity is singular and vast: a cold, flat tundra, somehow ripe with life, inviting us to come and play.
Loie Rawding grew up on the coast of Maine. Her work has been featured in various journals and magazines in the US and abroad. She is a Teaching Artist with The Porch Writers Collective and lives in Nashville, Tennessee. Loie’s debut novel, Tight Little Vocal Cords, will be released from KERNPUNKT this year.