How I See the Humans, by Gretchen VanWormer. Missoula, Montana: CutBank Books, forthcoming.
In her essay “The Moths” Gretchen VanWormer states that she has a “tendency to see everything as a metaphor.” Throughout How I See the Humans, VanWormer expertly delivers on this statement with layers upon layers of deep, carefully crafted metaphors. Some of the metaphors are obvious: bat guano stands for the shit coursing through a new friendship, sweater-eating moths gnaw away at grief, a wayward duck parallels the narrator’s own wandering, and a stuffed toy symbolizes extinction as much as it does the death of a thirteen-year-old girl. When you read this collection for a second time (and trust me, you’ll want to read the essays multiple times), the sentences open up, displaying a deft and precise choice for every word written.
“Camp” is a perfect example of VanWormer’s thoughtful, layered writing. The essay focuses on the narrator’s friendship with a boy named Loren. VanWormer and Loren are working as camp counselors for the summer. The essay opens with the counselors shoveling bat guano (bat shit) out of the drama building. Throughout the summer VanWormer and Loren are perceived as boyfriend and girlfriend, but VanWormer believes Loren is gay. Their friendship wanes when Loren claims to have an unrequited crush on a female counselor. The relationship is further strained when Loren tells peers that he has feelings for VanWormer. VanWormer wants to call Loren out on his “guano,” but can’t. Exemplifying the essay’s multitude of layered metaphors, the summer drama comes to ahead in the “old drama” building when Loren confides that everyone is saying he’s gay, but he claims he’s not.
VanWormer takes this moment to talk about Bat Boy: The Musical, which is about a boy who is half-boy, half-bat. He is shunned by society for being a “beast.” VanWormer uses the musical not as a way to say Loren’s sexuality is a “beast” (“That, too, would be guano”), but to illustrate the real, ugly tension happening between her and Loren.
The ending of “Camp” harkens back to the echolocation of the bats that hangout in the story. Echolocation is the sound that bats make and “wait until it returns.” After her falling out with Loren, VanWormer describes: “I remain onstage in my sleeping bag, waiting for the sound of Loren’s light footsteps to return to me. When they don’t, I close my eyes like a dingbat …”
Everything about this essay screams of double (and triple) meaning. The “old drama” building dredges up the “old drama” of the summer; counselors cling to new friendships like bats to wooden rafters; and when VanWormer asks Loren if there’s room for her in his car, they both know that what she’s really asking is if there’s still room for her in their friendship. Each thread of the story weaves itself through the narrative and is tied up neatly at the end. The threads are so subtle, however, that it feels as if you’re only reading one plotline, but by the end you realize that you’ve read three or four.
The other essays in VanWormer’s collection display similar intricate weaves. I was particularly drawn to the essay for which the collection gets its title: “How I See the Humans.” VanWormer shifts slightly from her concentration on one animal and instead turns the light on her own human species. A recent transplant from the green mountains of Vermont to the metro Washington, DC, area, VanWormer questions her perception of being able to see wildlife even within a large city, but is essentially missing the human life around her. She finally realizes that the reason she is attuned to these misplaced animals is because she feels a bit misplaced herself:
It occurs to me that most of the creatures I’m “seeing” in the District are a bit out of place. A duck in traffic. A twitchy dog in a subway car. The scraggly ferns in the Metro gates. And I wonder if I’m projecting—if this is my brain holding up some kind of furry mirror to itself. Or maybe my noggin is just trying to lay some track between country and city, Vermont and DC.
The reader gets a sense that VanWormer is “out of place” in the District because she lived for so long in a state where “wildlife is everywhere, and the culture is one of commune.” Luckily, on a train ride home, VanWormer realizes that she can commune with her new urban home, and she makes the connection that the underground Metro is symbolic of a living, breathing human:
[W]e humans are red blood cells drifting through the arteries of this city. A kind of circulatory system. In the a.m., we’re shot off to the various limbs and organs, pumped. But by nightfall, we’re sliding ourselves through the turnstiles, trying to get home, where we can breathe.
How I See the Humans is a fast, engaging, and mesmerizing read. Although her narrators all seem young, the writing is full of wisdom and reflection that will speak to readers of any age. The black and white images at the beginning of each essay provide a nice visual for the animal background of each story. A short collection, you’ll fly through VanWormer’s chapbook with ease. I guarantee you’ll want to read the book again, this time slower and sifting your way through the myriad metaphorical layers stacked within each essay.
Georgia Knapp is an avid traveler and storyteller. In her previous life she was a National Park Ranger and spent the past several years working for Chicago’s nonprofit theatre scene. She holds a BA in English from Kalamazoo College and is currently pursing an MFA degree in the land of Flannery O’Connor. Her works can be found in The Huffington Post, The Purple Fig, Kaaterskills Basin Literary Journal, Wraparound South, and forthcoming in the Georgia Writers Association’s Exit 271. Follow her on Twitter @georgia_travels or visit her website: georgiaknapp.org.