Manuel Gonzales's new collection of short stories, The Miniature Wife, will stick with you. The places and characters will ring daily in your mind and occur to you with neither invitation nor impetus. And when they do, you'll let your mind rest on those thoughts and think them for a while, maybe for whole blocks of the street you're walking down. Sure, that kind of second life is what pretty much all art aims to accomplish, but it's a surprise that The Miniature Wife achieves it.
It's a surprise because the stories are about unicorns, shrink rays, werewolves, and zombies. "Pilot, Copilot, Writer" is about a hijacked plane that circles Dallas for 20 years as the occupants age, die, and consume vials of liquid that meet all their nutritional needs. In "The Artist's Voice," a brilliant composer, who has seizures when he writes music, is able to talk—as in, literally verbalize—out of his ears. There is absolutely nothing in my quotidian life that resembles any of that, and no reason I should ever be reminded of these stories.
And yet I am, and frequently. The unicorn, especially, from "One-Horned & Wild-Eyed" comes back to me. Ralph buys it "off a goddamn Chinaman. And for cheap, too." And his friend, the narrator, is seized by an inexplicable and life-rending fascination with the creature in Ralph's shed.
It looked like some kind of pearlescent undersized horse or overlarge goat or some bastardization of the two, with maybe something else—moose? sea lion?—thrown in for good measure... it was thin and sleek and strong-looking, with something rounded and unhorselike about its face... it was an unsettling thing to look at, not ugly, but not pretty, either.
I thought about this goddamn unicorn for days. I thought about how the unicorn ate phosphorescent "fairy dust" that "looks like play sand you can buy at Walmart," but which the "Chinaman" said was ground-up fairies—the unicorn needed half a cup of it four times a day, mixed into a paste with either beer or whiskey. I thought about the two friends and their rivalry over the animal, and how Ralph would fall asleep in his lawn chair in front of it with his bathrobe draping open, and the narrator, despite their rivalry, would delicately cover Ralph up again. I thought about how the narrator felt when he touched the unicorn's coat for the first time, and the way it looked in the moonlight on the night it escaped.
This must be the difference between good and bad magical realism. Even though Gonzales is presenting me with things I've never imagined before and will never encounter again, they feel important, relevant, and tangible. It'd be easy to impose Aesop-like morals on the stories and read them as allegories for the real world they're not part of. Indeed, The Miniature Wife is so well-suited to providing platforms for considering the human condition that tropistic themes like jealousy, impotence, the mundane, relationship failure, etc., are unavoidable for any reader. (A unicorn? Duh, it's about the unachievable.) But to Gonzales's credit as a storyteller, the reason his work might resonate with a reader is not because it's a good foil for talking about the human condition. It's because his images are so haunting and clear, it is as though he's brought them to life, and I find it impossible to unsee the things I've seen in my mind's eye.