Book Review: Animal Collection by Colin Winnette

Animal Collection – I grasp for words to describe it. It is modern. It is postmodern. It is fables. It is magical realism. It is Saundersesque. It is Carveresque. It is flash fiction. It is short stories… Let’s just say that Colin Winnette’s second book of fiction, a collection of 25 [insert genre/mode here], defies classification. Though I do think postmodern fables gets pretty near to the heart of it.

These stories tow the line between the real and the fantastic, but unlike traditional fables, they defy metaphoric interpretation. When the animals take human roles, they do so bearing realistic descriptions that obliterate simplicity: “The elephant was looking at me with those tiny, wet eyes and holding me against the wall with his flat, leathery feet.” The attention to detail defamiliarizes man and animal and leaves the reader open to new interpretations of the relationship between the two.

Winnette’s characters not only reverse roles, they share crippling anxieties: greed, indiscretion, loss of control, loss of self, ego centrism, abandonment, guilt, acquiescence. These characters build cages for themselves; they break out of cages only to find a hungering world awaits. Twice in this collection legs are eaten off—characters face physical and psychological immobility. This collection asks haunting questions, and does not always provide answers.

In a few of my favorite stories, the magical realism is nonexistent, understated, or exposed in ways you wouldn’t expect. In HUMMINGBIRD, a woman obsesses over a bird she believes will sequester the guilt of not raising her young son: “She imagined the hummingbird behind the curtain of her hand. It would cock its head. It would be a simple and lovely thing. It would not call her ‘selfish’ or ‘unfit.’” In MOTH, the character’s ambivalence toward nature is expressed in just four sentences.

One of the greatest strengths of this collection is the variation in syntax and—therefore—tone. When appropriate to the character, the punctuation is playful and the sentences are long and rambling. Other characters prefer clauses that are short, repetitive stabs. At times, the sentences are disjointed and chock full of sorrow: “There was chocolate later, where he’d been standing. A small bar in soft paper.” From the varied syntax, a host of individual voices emerge, and leave the page just as quickly, emblazing your memory with their deeply haunting tales.

The book itself, the actual physical object, handmade from recyclable materials by Spork Press, feels like something from your childhood. It feels like it will transport you to a magical place where you are carefree and safe. But it is not—it will not. In a recent interview with THEthe Poetry, Winnette carves out a few new categories for his work: “It’s a bestiary, an abecedarium, a zoo.” Whatever you call it, the collection is neither comfortable nor simplistic. In the end, these stories deny straightforward morality but impart wisdom all the same. And, as the character notes in ULYSSES BUTTERFLY, leave one feeling inexplicably happy at the strangeness of things.

Buy Animal Collection from Spork Press.

-Laura Miller

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