Review: “Lost Objects: Stories” by Marian Womack

Endings and Beginnings in Womack’s "Lost Objects"

These days it is timely to be in mourning. So many people feel adrift and confused as if they have lost something intangible but precious. And perhaps they have. Jobs, relationships, even hope for the future — today, all of these shimmer and flash with the dangerous light of precarity. As so many of the characters in Marian Womack’s stories know, to be alive in days like these is to be suffused in dread for the things that are disappearing for the earth. Meanwhile the world continues turning with apparent glacial disregard for the bitter struggles being waged across it. Many predict the extinction of some twenty to fifty percent of all current species by the end of the century, as Elizabeth Kolbert describes in her book The Sixth Extinction. At the same time, genetic advances and labour transformations have created a global society wherein the artificial creation of animals is imaginable but meaningful labour for the majority of people is not. For many, the nature of work has become precarious. At best, it might be gig-based; at worst, it is mechanized or soul-numbingly pointless. Even so, objects that fall apart and collapse can be beautiful in their fragmentation and decay. This is as pertinent to the slow, graceful descent of a plucked flower as it is to the apocalypse that weird fiction sometimes traces. As it is here, in stories such as those offered by Marian Womack’s debut collection.

Asked to define her personal aesthetic as a writer here at WFR some time ago, Womack pithily responded that “Beauty is complicated.” An epigraph to “Orange Dogs”, the first story in Lost Objects, develops this sentiment further. It is ostensibly a quotation from an old German treatise on butterflies, and it reads “Sie warnen vor Giftigkeit”, or “They warn that they are poisonous.” For Monarchs and Pipevine Swallowtails, this is true. Beauty is complicated; so too are poisons, butterflies, the world. Womack attempts to shoulder that terrible awareness of apocalypse across this assembly of short stories. Some succeed; others, ambitious, stumble. On balance, they offer much to a generous reader. In the effort, they continue the response that weird fiction shapes to the question of the Anthropocene (Capitalocene? Chthulucene?), even while they broaden the ambit of weird fiction by introducing new spaces and settings for creative imaginations.

Womack is an Andalusian writer, graduate of the Clarion Creative Writing program, frequent editor, and co-founder of Ediciones Nevsky / Nevsky Books. These many filiations with the literary world yield a crop of diverse settings and characters in her stories. She cut her teeth in translating core texts of modern weird fiction from English into Spanish, including Karen Tidbeck’s Jagannath and Amatka, as well as the classics of gothic fiction from Mary Shelley and Charles Dickens to Lord Dunsany, and you can trace those influences in surprising fashion across the offerings here. The settings of Lost Objects range from an eerie Eastern Europe to a genetically-reinvented Scotland, and from a Thatcher-esque world of English mining to a frozen world of ice and storms. Her protagonists are intellectually curious but socially-marginal characters, children and librarians, old scientists and regretful scroungers. For a debut, Lost Objects looks to a great range of sources and shoulders an immense weight.

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Lost Objects is divided into two sections. The first offers a number of shorter stories, of which one of the best is “Black Isle”, a story set in Scotland that concerns the generic reconstruction of entire species and biospheres. Other stand-outs are the mysterious “Marvels Do Not Oftimes Occur” and “Orange Dogs”, mentioned above. (You can also read “Orange Dogs” here on Weird Fiction Review if you are so inclined.) Across these stories, apocalypse and survival take on many faces, while human desires — and regrets — take flight in lyric moments of the imagination. Over and over again, the things humans make that will exist into the future are put in jeopardy. For example, “Black Isle” posits a mysterious company whose re-envisioning of the genetic sequence has allowed for massive changes to the ecological life and animal composition of the world after the sudden vanishing of birds and other animals. “Neo-Bio” has made artificial creatures such as blue bears and orange lizards possible — and also necessitates the laws against these aesthetic disasters. To the dismay of the scientists at the forefront of this change, however, all is not as it seems, and the recreation of the world according to XenoLab may not be as sustainable as claimed.

In contrast to the semi-recognizable corporate earth of “Black Isle”, “Orange Dogs” foresees a broken, limping world of scarcity wherein knowledge of the old world is rare and parcelled out, and where creatures that we may be familiar with have transformed beyond comprehension. What were once butterflies are now hunters that use venom, giant insects roam the world, seasons have changed, and floods have reworked the distribution of lands, cities, of lives. Anxieties over children and progeny of various kinds, natural or unnatural, recur in these stories, as do concerns with fraught relationships in the decay of social networks. Crucially, in these short stories, as in another of the more evocative tales, “Little Red Drops”, guilt and regret shadow each of the major characters. So too do acute if slightly akimbo one liners lodge themselves in the imagination. For example, see the one-line self-reflection provided by Olga, the narrator of the latter story: “What a fierce thing was she, a jilted woman.”

From the evidence provided, Womack prefers to frustrate resolution and the narrative impulse to tie up loose ends. Closure is clearly a relic of the past and can no longer anchor the lives of the people in her tales. Instead, climaxes frequently bring readers to a transformative awareness wherein the world itself — or at least the guilty, haunted visions of that we see through the eyes of Womack’s protagonists — seems to change. The first section of Lost Objects comes to a close with the book’s most intense effort to pay witness to change in its moment of world-altering gravity, “Marvels Do Not Ofttimes Occur”. Here, a “celestial phenomenon” leaves its prospective early modern viewer (placed in Nuremberg, 1561) astonished and alarmed. The pious recorder’s voice is particularly striking and plaintive — as poignant as a story of death, destruction, and disappearance can be. As the recorder writes there, “For all that we have suffered, and have deserved to suffer, may God grant us his help. I put my hand to this true account, at Nuremburg, the third anniversary of the death of Doctor Johannes Bugenhagen of Wollin. What would he have made of it I wonder.”

The second section of Lost Objects primarily consists of “Kingfisher”, a short story about a librarian whose relationship with birds, beauty, work, writing, and her husband result in a delirious turn of affairs. The beginning of this story is a blurred boundary between an initially recognizable world and a later turn toward something much weirder. Take this early passage, for instance. It in, the narrator-writer reflects on her sleepy life in a small village:

I was getting bored by then. Of the friendly faces, the easiness of it all. I started fantasising that I needed to deal with some obstacles in order to produce good material. That I needed to be a little bit uncomfortable, a little bit cold, a little bit unhappy. An excuse as good or as bad as any other, designed to clear my mind of the real fear: that I would never write again. My fellow classmates from the writing class I had attended were doing very well for themselves; some were doing incredibly well for themselves. I was ashamed of how jealous this made me: until then I had always thought I was a good person. I felt happy for them, but I also kept wondering why I could not be as successful as they were.

Given what follows, this passage suggests an uncanniness to the story in the sense that Tzvetan Todorov discussed years ago in The Fantastic. Its prosaic elements anchor the story in a world much like ours, one nervously familiar to that produced by the news headlines and deep-seated anxieties we all know too well. So too are the protagonist’s deep concerns with her employment and employability. The expensive education she has received has not prepared her for a living in a small village where fishing, farming, and small-holding are primary sources of economic and household sustenance.

Like those protagonists in the shorter stories, the narrator of “Kingfisher” feels intense regret when she reflects on the past. As she admits, “sometimes it felt as if all the sacrifices that my parents had made to provide me with a better future had been for nothing.” If the world of the past is one of capitalist expansion and sacrifice, one that foresaw only better tomorrows while it devoured the bone marrow of today, the new world is smaller and much reduced in ambition.

Possibilities that had been obvious to our parents even one generation back were now impossible dreams. Housing was unaffordable, so we would never own a place of our own, although at the same time there were hundreds, thousands, of houses and rooms empty up and down the country. They were just owned by other people, not us: banks and companies and trusts and corporations. […]  There were not many cars anymore, no air travel, although I was secretly happy about this. I remember flying once, when I was very little, how frightening it was, how miraculous it felt. But the wrong kind of miracle, like black magic. […] This brave new world was about wanting fewer things, not more things. There were no more certainties.

The disappearances that mark “Kingfisher” include those of animals and even children. Without tracing the story too closely, and following its dreams and nightmares, the revelations of the story yield perhaps less than the fact of the complex network that it is trying to harness into a coherent individual’s story during such transformative change. Womack’s book does not end there, however, but with the fleeting and yet majestic “A Place for Wild Beasts”. It might be the sequencing of the collection, but the opposition of the long and sometimes laborious “Kingfisher” with the brilliant snippet of “A Place for Wild Beasts” suggests that the best passages in Lost Objects are those in which the lyrical imagination is given room enough to take flight, at which point it — quicksilver — vanishes.

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The contemporary imagination faces a plethora of near-unimaginable forces about which just enough is known for the mind to shy away in horror or disbelief. Among her inspirations from the gothic traditions of Spain and England, Womack cites newspaper material concerning climate change, social inequity, and the new Gilded Age culture. These things beggar the imagination, even as they are the creations of ordinary forces and human acts. Perhaps the most significant indication of this transformation is that the current geological epoch is named after human activity. In the time of the Anthropocene, telling stories about the future is fraught with anxiety. Merely imagining what a future might be like is difficult, both materially and emotionally. Historians Christophe Bonduel and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz argue in their recent study The Shock of the Anthropocene that Anthropocentric imaginations must accept a “double reality”:

On the one hand, the Earth has seen other epochs in the last 4.5 billion years, and life will continue in one form or another with or without humans. But the new status that we are launching the Earth into will bring with them a disorder, penury and violence that will render it less readily habitable by humans.

Can this knowledge be incorporated into the vision of world-historical time that supplies literary fiction its material? Lost Objects suggests that it might be possible — maybe — in weird fiction. The multiple reductions and disappearances within Womack’s stories hint at what many people already know: society is unsustainable. As Andreas Malm notes with understated severity in The Progress of This Storm, “Expect more gifts of history to be withdrawn, one after the other, primarily from those who never received very many of them in the first place.” There is always more to consider. What is to be done when the intimate and everyday nature of work — its precarity for some and its meaninglessness for others — is “a scar across our collective soul”, in the words of anthropologist David Graeber. Perhaps, as the protagonist of “Kingfisher” wonders, our imaginations must catch up with our needs and desires, which must themselves freshly confront the world. As the editors of the recent book Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet point out, “Life has been monstrous almost from its beginnings.”

What a world. There will always be fiction to offer an interpretive lens, a prophetic augury. With the publication of Lost Objects, Marian Womack rises to the challenge. She offers stories of crisis wherein the nature of human work and our capacity to prepare for and live within the future as we understand it are put to the question. They bear that weight about as well as can be expected. Cumulatively, they suggest than that the human ability to create a future is failing, and that the “lost objects” of the title are the dreamt-of lives that would — that could — exist however many years from now. Whatever form they take, the prediction that Womack makes with certainty is always this: they will be almost unrecognizable.