The stories in Michelle Ross’ debut collection, aptly named There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, are fueled by grade school science, by snake venom, by fossilization, by velocity, by the kind of magic that’s real. Ross’ characters live in half-formed worlds, their vision limited by their circumstances. In these twenty-three stories, characters stare down the throats of snakes, contemplate black holes, reunite with estranged family members, and debate the best ways to yank teeth from mouths. In every story, characters face and learn to cope with the loneliness and uncertainty of adulthood.
Ross’ stories are deceptively complex. She weaves a complicated braid, and does so with such ease that the labor is nearly invisible. Because of their complexity, Ross’ stories are difficult to encapsulate. In “Rattlesnake Roundup,” the main character goes on a trip with her family to release her father-in-law’s remains. The twenty-page story is also about her tense relationship with her husband, her reflections on her life as a teenager, and the family’s reactions to her mother-in-law’s much younger boyfriend. Meanwhile, she dwells on a missing girl, whom she doesn’t know, but who haunts her nonetheless. The resulting story is rich and immersive. I feel an unusual closeness to the main character’s anxieties, her feeling of coming loose at the seams.
Ross presents several plot-threads as a way of getting to the bottom of her subjects. It reminds me of a technique essayists use, a technique that is particularly characteristic of Matthew Gavin Frank. In his book, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer, Frank strives to understand the giant squid by considering myths, ice cream, deceased family members, and more. In an interview with The Normal School, he explains this odd combination of ideas by saying, “The theory is that these seemingly dissimilar things, glimpsed only when turning the back on the main subject, have something to say about that main subject.” What constantly impressed me in Ross’ writing was her ability to put dissimilar subjects side by side and have them not clash, but illuminate each other. Black holes and lock down drills. Serial killers and love. It’s like a character says in her story, “Alien Eye”: “Don’t you hear the poetry? It’s all connected. All you need are a couple of variables, and you can calculate the rest. With just a few details, you can solve for so much.”
Swimming through these stories is an obsession with the body and the body’s hidden mechanics. In “Ventriloquy,” the character describes her favorite ride: “the one that spun her around and around, so quickly that she felt her skin might slip off her skeleton, and that she would leave the ride not as one girl, but two—one skin, one bone.” Here, the stripping-down of the body seems to be a metaphor for abandon, for letting go. The two versions of herself, skin and bone, are free in their simplicity. In “Like Pulling Teeth,” Ross writes, “When the girl had learned that kids’ teeth fell out, she’d thought that eyeballs, fingers, and entire limbs were cast off and remade too. That children regenerated themselves piece by piece, like lizards replacing severed tails, until nothing of their child bodies was left: that’s how they became adults.” This collection feels like a science textbook that’s been handed down from student to student, scribbled with notes, hearts and dragons penned over topographical maps—transformed into an art object that contains both science and myth. Ross’ stories are smart, heartfelt, and surprising. Her characters are curious about how the body works, but more importantly what the body means. In these stories, Ross considers how our inner biologies reflect who we are. It’s a book about the stories hidden under our skins.
There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, by Michelle Ross. Springfield, Missouri: Moon City Press, February 2017. 252 pages. $14.95, paper.
Dana Diehl is a graduate of the Susquehanna University Writers Institute and earned her MFA in Fiction at Arizona State University. She is the author of Our Dreams Might Align, a story collection from Jellyfish Highway Press, and her stories have appeared in North American Review, Passages North, Booth, and elsewhere. She lives in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.