Think Kafka for the absurdism, for the nihilistic subjects. Think Lydia Davis for the story-as-grammatical-game. Think of the pranksterism of Michael Martone. Think of your favorite conspiracy theory, your favorite washed-up actor. If you like what you’re thinking about, you should read Insignficana by Dolan Morgan. No, wait. There are other reasons. Read it for the abyss, for kicks, for your heart. Read it, as its dedication says, for anything.
The twenty-two stories in Dolan Morgan’s sophomore release are short and direct, but reside in some other dimension. In the book’s two longest stories, a dying man’s replacement body “flowers out” of a wound in his abdomen, and a pregnant woman copes with bringing a hole (not a baby) to term as a lazy apocalypse sets in. This collection contains a series of rumored “Celebrity Training” news stories (in one, Danson, Selleck, and Guttenburg fight to the death for the lead role in One Man and a Baby). Sprinkled throughout are six myths about wild plane hijackings fully supported by made-up footnotes. And, you can find excerpts from a chemistry textbook-cum-Karma Sutra.
Morgan’s work is at once ironic and sincere, a shining model of metamodernism on the short story level. A means of collapsing distances—the distance between sincerity and irony, between literature and tabloid, between truth and fact—metamodernism has been described as a “structure of feeling” that serves to re-create a whole and progressive worldview.
What Morgan writes about—unreal metaphysical conceits, hoaxes, fake films, random locations on Google earth—seems, on the surface, trivial. Each story’s concept sounds funny, but ultimately meaningless. However, he doesn’t treat his subjects with sardonic distance, but rather holds them close and hugs their feelings out. The goal is not to point at an absurdity and laugh, but get inside that absurdity and roam around.
Morgan loves the deer that his character in “Timeshare” climbs inside. In another story, he allows the Titanic the freedom to “become itself” and achieve self-awareness. Offering advice on how to live at the end of a linguistic experiment in which “you” kills “you,” Morgan writes, “The bottom line is there are two of you and one of you is bound to get fed up with you. Whether it’s you or you, it’ll still be you who gets it in the end. Do yourself a favor and get rid of that you you’ve got lying around. It’s a danger to you.” Though they may seem simplistic or silly at first, each story is sure to leave the reader in an unexpected place.
With that said, Morgan’s stories do often open with what sounds like the setup to a joke. “No one in this town ever goes home,” Morgan writes in the books opener, “Libbingston, TX.” And although the humor pervades almost every paragraph of Insignficana, it is never the sole purpose. The people in Libbingston don’t ever make it home, because the street patterns have become unsolvably complex. But Morgan doesn’t simply watch the residents suffer while cracking a few witty one-liners. In four hundred words, the wandering, nameless people of Libbingston turn real for us. These lost masses can’t be real because we know it is fiction; but at the same time, Libbingston is almost a real place (Livingston is the town’s actual name). The situation in Libbingston can’t be real because it’s absurd; but then again, “lost” is a relative, ambiguous adjective. Just as Morgan isn’t worried about turning the story into a punchline, he’s also not worried about convincing you of the situation’s reality. While he won’t treat the impossible as purely possible, he will treat the inhabitants of the impossible with diligent consideration and empathy, regardless of how fucked or flawed they seem. When “Libbingston, TX” ends on an image of young lovers parking their cars along the side of the road, setting up camp, and “refusing to move as to better hold on to each other,” we feel it. We came for the laugh, but stayed for the hope. Because Morgan, through the layered realities of his metamodern stories, lets us have our cake and eat it too.
At the sentence level, Morgan is deft, always lucid, and often acrobatic. The energy of his prose is amped up. His myths, gossips, and strange apocalyptic tales are delivered with a near-ramble, language half-yelled and quick.
In “Politicians I Have Tasted,”—which, yes, is a first-person account of eating a series of legislators—Morgan writes, “I sat in the marsh with water up to the top of my wader boots, rifle poised and ready, while across the auburn dawn swarmed a flock of Congressmen.” There are thousands more sentences as fun and assonant as this one, driving home again the sense of respect Morgan grants his deceptively shallow content. For example, a farfetched hijacking myth is presented with this elegant syntax:
Think, if the man Yuan, like his plane, is only the superficial layer of nothingness within him—that is, if he is only the cheap lipstick and blush on the skin of the abyss—then his hijacking is heroic, for it is an original example of the makeup finally attacking the face.
We don’t necessarily believe the words to be true, but because of their lyricism, we are invited to consider the subject on levels beyond its ironic surface.
Think of the person at the party who invariably asks, “Yeah, but what even is time?” Think of the person who ends an argument with, “Yeah, but everything is meaningless anyway.” Well, Dolan Morgan’s stories are like if those people actually had something substantive to say about time or the abyss, and they could communicate it clearly, and they were willing to interrogate it deeply with equal parts humor and beauty. And if you need one last thing to think about, here’s a passage that contains a gleaming version of the book’s heart:
… flight is achieved not by means of solid mass, but by the imbalance of nothingness that surrounds the wings. The negative space of an airplane, that dearth of solid material, that emptiness forming the plane both within and without, is simultaneously the manner in which it moves and the path on which it travels. Nothing drives the engine and opens the way.
Insignificana, by Dolan Morgan. Civil Coping Mechanisms, March 2016. 170 pages, $15.95, paper.
Tyler Barton is one half of Fear No Lit. He studies fiction writing at Minnesota State University, Mankato, where he serves as a fiction editor for Blue Earth Review. His work has been published in NANO Fiction, Smokelong Quarterly, Hobart, Monkeybicycle, and elsewhere. Find his stories at tsbarton.com. Find his jokes at @goftyler.