The elevator pitch version of this review might read something like “Twin Peaks meets Raymond Carver.” In his debut story collection, Nathan Elias reveals the strangeness just beneath the surface of milieus often associated with gritty realism: hotels, hospital rooms, “a bar in Seminole Heights called Hole in the Wall.” These nondescript locales are the backdrop for characters coming to terms with existential loss; their quiet desperation prompts the occasional Carveresque bender, but more often a turn to the speculative. Cayman, the patron who stumbles into Hole in the Wall in the collection’s opener, “The Alligator Theory,” uses his background making documentaries to research a suspicion that his vanished four-year-old daughter has turned into an alligator. In a story of compounding loss—of his daughter, his wife, and even a key piece of evidence in his investigation—theory is all he has left. Darryl, who works at a Toledo hotel renowned for hosting the gangster Al Capone, submits her deceased son’s photographs, emails, and other personal data to a visiting scientist who claims that his invention can bring the dead back virtually: “‘if you approach the machine with an open mind, you may discover uncanny resemblances between its ability to relay information and your son’s unique, individual personality’.”
Of course, elevator pitches never tell the whole story, and the texture of Elias’ gritty speculation deserves to be experienced in full. Genres aren’t supposed to matter anymore, now that they’ve proven their literary and commercial viability. Too often, however, the vigor of speculation can be dulled when read as just another vehicle for realism’s elevator pitch: Love haunts us like a ghost. I was a teenage monster. Being an alien can be so … alienating. The true literary hybrid is a rare and unsettling beauty, an experiment that unsettles more than it confirms about the assumptions being tested. When realism takes a speculative turn, there might be no turning back.
The further we drift with Elias’ protagonists, the more we suspect that revelation is just around the corner. In “Right Now at This Very Moment,” Athen is about to hook up with Sylvia, his deceased best friend Sam’s girlfriend. As they wrestle through their desire, awkwardness, and grief, they contemplate the pattern of events that has brought them together:
“If my parents had never moved into the house on Erie Street when I was five, I wouldn’t have met Sam,” Athen said. “It all goes back so far. Our friends, our parents. All of their reasons and desires and choices put together. And we’re the sum of it all.”
In “The Al Capone Suite,” Darryl eventually reunites virtually with her son Clark, an image on a machine’s monitor: “All the lights in the suite went out except for her son’s face, its glow combating the darkness.” Are these characters actually finding the answers they desperately want, or are they giving in to delusions? Elias refuses to judge, leaving us suspended between tantalizing possibilities.
The atmosphere of individual stories is echoed in the collection as a whole, with characters from earlier stories reemerging later, although these prequels/sequels don’t provide any resolutions. They work instead like J.J. Abrams Easter eggs—rewarding and frustrating us simultaneously, clues that only work to deepen a central mystery. Those looking for answers might find them in the concluding title story, but this could just be another existential Easter egg.
In The Reincarnations, Nathan Elias has produced that rare hybrid of hybrids—a sequence of distinct short fictions that reads like a cohesive book. The concept of reincarnation echoes and grows in resonance the deeper we follow its various rabbit holes. The departed return as memories indulged or suppressed, as reconstituted data, as personal or cultural narratives. They are always present in these stories from a near future happening now.
The Reincarnations, by Nathan Elias. Oakland, California: Montag Press, October 2020. 190 pages. $14.95, paper.
Pedro Ponce is the author of the story collection The Devil and the Dairy Princess, which is forthcoming this fall from Indiana University Press. He teaches writing and literary theory at St. Lawrence University.