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English department

No Animals We Could Name
by Ted Sanders

Curious and Complex: Sanders’ Short Stories are Worth the Effort

Narrow columns of words, framed in blocks like a newspaper, written in the future tense with no proper nouns: so begins Ted Sanders’ ambitious short-story collection, No Animals We Could Name. From this first story to later ones that play with second-person narrations in prose that borders on poetry, Sanders does more than subvert the typical short story; he explodes it.

The collection is the first book for Sanders, who has won numerous awards for his short fiction in various magazines and anthologies. It combines some of his published work with new stories to form an eclectic assortment that crosses many styles and genres.

In these stories, animals have power over humans and humans are controlled by animal tendencies. A sentient halibut despairs in his last hours. A man cuts off his own hand, simply because he realizes the deed is possible. In several stories, characters are called only “the man” or “the girl.” Described as only one of many, the line between human and animal is further blurred.

The settings for these stories are as ordinary as a car ride home, a vet’s office, a living room on a Saturday morning; or as fantastic as machines that control men, and ghosts that haunt a grieving man, “curdling” away from him . It speaks to the power of Sanders’ writing that within mundane settings move stories as fantastic as fables, and that within fables walk characters one could imagine sitting next to on the bus.

However, Sanders perhaps aims too high. The book is beautiful and compelling, but borders on the inaccessible. Occasionally the technical skill which marks his writing overshadows the thematic content. One gets the idea that more was put into the stories than can be pulled out. Certainly much of the more experimental writing will fly over the head of the casual reader.

But his writing can be read on multiple levels. Even at his most basic, Sanders is a master at creating a picture with words. His imagery is dazzling. In “Flounder,” an octopus is: “an object of a scandalous color, an organic orange like that of certain flowers, or a certain rustic-seeming breed of scented candle, wrapped in strips of raffia, or certain suns. It bobs there, bright and rich, the size of laundry, half-immersed in its reflection in the uncolored water.”

One character holds a “knife like a needle in her hand. She is sewing a tomato to pieces.” Through different stories, cats “ghost”, “smoke” and “make eight” around people’s legs. Of one character, Sanders writes “she looks dispensed;” while another’s has a “voice like curtains.” This startling aptness of description stretches the imagination of the reader.

Where Sanders really excels is in matching this imagery with powerful emotions. Blurring the line between man and beast, No Animals is carnal. It breathes lust and desire and sensuousness. A lion made from bed sheets and a man’s sperm comes to life. Sexual tension so pervades a story, that it becomes the story. The characters in No Animals inhabit a developed, three-dimensional world. They fidget. They scratch themselves, shake their heads, put things into their mouths.

This, in the end, is what makes No Animals worth reading. Ted Sanders is good at what he does. He captures our most animal natures, but does not stop there. His empathy for all his characters produces “man goes fishing” stories where one feels the agony of the fish, but also cheers for the man. Animals are a theme throughout, but his heroes are human beings. Human feelings of rage and regret, of confusion and contentment resonate throughout. Though some plots are more engaging than others, there is something to be admired, at least technically, on every page.

With each careful word and perfect phrase, Sanders allows us to see the ordinary with a new clarity while presenting the fantastic in a way that seems unexceptional. Though challenging, his tales are unforgettable to anyone patient enough to allow them to unfold in their own way.