No Animals We Could Name
by Ted Sanders
“It’s Quite a Novelty, Being Asymmetrical”
Ted Sanders takes full advantage of his medium: the short story. Each vignette in No Animals We Could Name pulses with vitality and swells with the weight of the momentary. With unconventional perspectives on universal experiences, Sanders slaughters ideas both fascinating and horrible; readers will gasp in queasy surprise.
The stories range from prose poems- filling only partial pages-to a three-part saga that Sanders intersperses throughout the collection. They contain thematic and literary variety that work together like a dream. That is, the elements vary so wildly from unbelievable to eerily realistic that sentences sometimes require a second pass to distinguish fiction from magic realism that borders on the factual. Visual variety also adds an interesting touch; the two stories that bookend the collection are visibly unique in structure. Obit, the first story, contains two simultaneous stories in side-by-side rows of text appropriately resembling newspaper columns, and Assembly, the last, is justified right, with each paragraphical stanza exploring Peter Lumley’s construction of variously odd and useless machinery. For readers that find pleasure in copious inner dialogue and tales steeped in sensuality this collection is a must-read.
One theme that speaks to Sander’s sensibility continually crops up in the collection: that is, the inability of characters to tell their own stories. In Momentary James attempts to explain why he cut off his own hand, thinking, “I could tell her elements of truth, of course, but they wouldn’t be right. They would only be pieces” (177). In Airbag David struggles with similar feelings. In attempts to describe the woman he once loved to a new friend, he realizes that there is not a single narrative, but a thousand and that “to tell it, to speak any one version of what happened- that would mean pretending that this one story was more true, or more meaningful, or more revealing than all of the other stories [he] might tell” (131). In Flounder a man considers describing to his wife the sound of killing an octopus, but he gives up before he begins fearing he cannot fully express himself. In Putting the Lizard to Sleep the entire plot revolves around ineffective storytelling. A parent worries about how to explain to his son the death of his childhood pet. In attempts to help him understand, the father crafts a good intentioned lie, a choice that in the end obscures his ability to tell the more complex truth. The father is left embracing his questioning son and trying to think of answers.
Sanders to the rescue. Characters with shockingly ambivalent and isolating inner lives are in the hands of a master who strips them beautifully naked on the page. Sanders can’t resist exploring sexual tension, and rages after this impulse to explore the things most care bury. Whether this tendency should be deemed noble or animalistic, it brings the collection to life. In the plight for realism Sanders enlists the help of diverse perspectives and invasive physical details. He writes the story Jane in second person from the perspective of a married man speaking to a ghostly lover, and Flounder from the perspective of a halibut. The expansion into surprising personas increases the authenticity of his stories. Sensitivity to physical detail such as the precise arc of urine into a toilet, the graze of a wrist against a nipple, and the “queasy curiosity” of an unruly eyebrow hair also mount the credibility of the moments he explores. The addition of surreal elements to the precise details playfully reduces his readers’ dependence on reality. Lions sewn from bed sheets come alive with human breath and three Peter Lumleys eat cake.
Sander’s skill with language accompanies his commitment to honest characterization with a high level of emotional intensity and precise word choice. His imagery is tender, off-kilter, and evocative. His descriptors: piece of food “devoured down to its stain,” a woman’s voice “like a rumpled bed,” and a man clapping his hands, “like cattle, rough mating beasts, a herd of two” sting with an odd pleasure (38, 40, 172).
Sanders breathes strange life into his characters and thereby affirms humanity in its gore, beauty and tendency to obsess over ordinary thoughts and conversations. He urges awareness of the mundane and exalts intuition. The dreamy gaze of his indomitable voice shatters familiar notions of storytelling with sentences that stalk the imaginations of his readers long after the last page.
By: LEAH SIENKOWSKI