Imaginary Museums by Nicolette Polek, a very real story collection from Soft Skull Press, reviewed by Erin Flanagan

This slim collection of compact stories left me dumbfounded that we’re given the agency to run our own lives when it’s clear there are myriad ways we’re screwing them up. Disconnection, isolation, distraction, and desire are just a few of the ploys we dumb humans engage to safeguard against making connections that are too true, while simultaneously recognizing that true connection is what we really want.

Ranging from a paragraph to a few pages, with nine pages as the outlier, Polek’s stories put the reader to work so they can prove they’re worth the effort, which they often are, as they mine their surprising depth. These missives aren’t just short and odd, they’re aggressively so. Some are straight realism—a woman out for drinks with several men is overwhelmed by imposter syndrome, while the men seem to have no such qualms—whereas others revolve around allegories Polek treats as real. In the opening story, a woman sets up “a rope barrier, with a green velvet rope, which she carried around in her backpack like a tripod,” but what’s delightful is that the barrier isn’t just something metaphorical in her imagination; it’s literal in her life and the lives of others: “Her friends called it the meditation median, despair wall, uncrossing the line … For birthdays she received replacement ropes from her family, in novelty colors, like glow-in-the-dark, or snakeskin.” 

The first of four sections, “Miniature Catastrophes,” contains insightful moments of anti-revelation. While traditional stories often hinge on moments where characters’ lives are nudged in one direction or another, Polek looks closely at those moments of our lives that add up to very little, but comprise the majority. Instead of having epiphanies, people in these stories have drinks in bars and go to grocery stores. In “Garden Party,” a couple goes on a date that’s, well, just ok. Even the location is meh: “They’re flirting through a garden. Not a particularly exceptional garden but a garden gardenly enough to set the scene for things to bloom.” As the date goes on, Polek writes, “One cannot help the way one feels, or doesn’t feel. Sometimes she needs validation. Sometimes he doesn’t want to spend an afternoon alone. As they exchange childhood anecdotes they listen half-impressed. Not every human experience is inherently valuable.”

In “American Interiors,” the second section, stories take place at a dinner table, in a yellow kitchen, in classrooms—locations that are their own versions of sanctuaries and cells. Here characters are searching for contentment in different forms, in places that both exist and don’t, that feel both real and unreal, and where things are just a little bit off. In the story “A House for Living,” a mathematician moves into a “glass condominium with fourteen doors and has nightmares about the rooms behind them switching places.” In “Your Shining Trapdoor,” objects no longer fulfill their original purposes but are used as “strange replacements for things—a golf club for a cane, a desktop computer on a dresser used as a desk, a stethoscope instead of earplugs, and several one-lensed, one-armed eyeglasses […] stacked together int one working pair.” 

In the title story, after a divorce Annie is encouraged to visit the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Museum in New York City, and the trip blooms into the “perfect fix” for her life. She imagines numerous scenarios—how she’ll travel, the souvenirs she’ll see, the good-looking man she’ll meet. As these “illusory successes” begin to buoy her she finds out the museum doesn’t exist, and is left to process the divorce in the wake of another disappointment, finally understanding how difficult it is to comprehend someone else’s wanting. The story is redemptive in the end as Annie creates her own museum, finally understanding at least what she needs, one object replacing another.

“Slovak Sceneries,” section three, hones in on disconnection and isolation. In these stories characters ask much of each other without seeming able to contemplate each other’s needs, but not all is quite this dour. In “Library of Lost Things,” the final section, people and places are joined through strangers and objects: a guest book at a cabin, the girls that someone knows. Characters realize they’re “weighted down by the leftover noise [these things] carry” in moments that mirror for us the connection we seek through the people we really know.

While some of the stories seem more concrete than others, and some puzzles are easier and more fulfilling to crack, what lives on every page is the odd way Polek has of capturing the world with language—an old oak tree makes “opening-door sounds”; a woman takes a deep breath “but still feels the her in her”—or how well Polek captures the depressing gray area of compromise when a couple, afraid to voice their needs, ends up in the “dumb strawberry-banana limbo” of breakfast smoothies, where there might not be a loser, but there certainly isn’t a winner.

In “A House for Living,” mentioned earlier, the mathematician renovates her condo with oddly sized stairs and doorknobs in wrong places, hoping the challenges of living in such a place will some how make her more virtuous. Polek writes, “Perhaps if the mathematician infuses every mundane activity [such as opening a door] with stimulus, she could unlock the graying parts of her brain.” This collection feel a lot like that—the stories are the stimulus, and you are the mathematician—and perhaps in its enigma lies its virtue.

Imaginary Museums, by Nicolette Polek. New York, New York: Soft Skull Press, January 2020. 128 pages. $15.95, paper.

Erin Flanagan is the author of two short story collections published by the University of Nebraska Press: The Usual Mistakes and It’s Not Going to Kill You, and Other Stories. She is an English professor at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

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