Charlie Sterchi reviews MAN V. NATURE by Diane Cook

June 3, 2015 0 Comments Book Review 2653 Views

Cover from publisher’s website.

Diane Cook, Man V. Nature. Harper Collins, 2014. 257 pp. $25.99.

Review by Charlie Sterchi, University of Florida

One interpretive anxiety in reviewing Diane Cook’s story collection, Man V. Nature, revolves around the situational diversity of the warm, glowing, naturalist-absurdist stories that make up the meat between the front and back covers. Yes, the diversity is staggering. A few of the stories are in the dystopian vein; for instance, “The Unneeded Forest” sets itself in a political territory that rounds up its surplus boy children each spring and incinerates them, to no parent’s chagrin. Other stories take place in a sort of worst-case-scenario-insofar-as-global-climate-change-is-concerned future of understatedly biblical proportions. One of these, “The Way The End Of Days Should Be,” gives us a global flood and a protagonist holed up in her elevated mansion complaining about the noise coming from the refugee camp next door, and she doesnot imbibe terrifically from her copious store of liquor. Yet Cook situates other stories in what seems to be a realist’s set, with characters not much concerned with things external or global, even as the characters’ behavior is far from indicating straight realism. The diverse stories – and the contrasts resulting there from – implore the reader to peer into the spaces between them, where the proverbial magic happens. I’ll call it a series of stained glass windows, secular variety, giving us stories about human folly in the face of oblivion – oblivion real and/or imagined.

The centerpiece of the secular window series is the titular story window, “Man V. Nature.” Let’s talk about seventh grade literary parlance. Man versus nature encompasses men versus men and man versus self, I’d say. Cook seems to say so, at least, and I venture to agree with her. Three drunk guys, Phil, Ross, and Dan, pleasure craft fishing, run out of gas. They abandon Phil’s cruiser, its radio transmitter, and its navigation devices on one of several great lakes. Phil, divorced military man, philanderer, and unabashed public masturbator, is the protag here. Ross and Dan, childhood best friends and next-door neighbors, dislike Phil. Veritable Bismarckian Balkan Peninsula of a character powder keg, you might say.

Someone said something, I assume on several occasions, about whimper-not-bang as relates to the end of the world scenario. So it happens here. Despite the bombast of Dan’s film plot – based loosely on the plight of the three floaters, which includes a coup de-etat in Canada’s government – and despite the character powder keg, the life and death dramatics all come down to three whimpering men, each against his own self.

Dan gives well the gist of the story and the whole collection when he says, “‘Everything is man versus this and man versus that. It’s so simple…It’s man versus everything. It’s me. It’s you. It’s us. It’s in us.”            Everything real and everything imagined, Daniel. Some subtle tones of Old Testament Daniel here, seer of Nebuchanezzar dreams, cuddle-buddy to Nebuchanezzar lions. Cook’s book, like the Daniel Book of old, is full, as you may have noticed, of millennialisms. Man V. Nature, real and/or imagined. It’s in us. (Too, check out infinite regression – think Quaker Oatmeal box – in your paper or internet encyclopedia and apply it to the monologue above included, the story in which it appears, the book in which the story appears, the cultural climate in which the book appears, and have an interpretive good time.)

And while such a weighty statement concerning seventh-grade level literary concepts could easily come off heavy-handed, didactic, boring, Cook serves it up with the ironic understatement and humor one might expect from Garcia Marquez. The juxtaposition of content and tone, as with Garcia Marquez, not only highlights the absurd in the mundane and taken-for-granted, but exhibits just how eager we humans can be to adapt to social and ecological transformation, how quickly we can digest the absurd or the novel, pump it out the other end, and flush it – threat neutralized – even as it’s sucking the life from us, even as it’s killing our loved ones, even as it destroys the basic conditions necessary for survival.

So go out in the street and wiggle your internal combustion through heavy traffic, buy a copy of this one.

About the Author

Diane Cook’s fiction has been published in Harper’s Magazine, Granta, Tin House, Zoetrope, One Story, Guernica, and elsewhere. Her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times Magazine and on This American Life, where she worked as a radio producer for six years. She earned an MFA from Columbia University, where she was a Teaching Fellow. She lives in Oakland, California.


San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book of the Year

Boston Globe’s “Best Fiction of 2014”

Roxane Gay’s Top Ten Books of the Year     

An Amazon Best Short Story Collection of 2014

An iBook Best of 2014  

Important Links:

Publisher’s Website

It’s Us V. Us”: An Interview with Diane Cook

[Six Questions] | Discussing Man V. Nature with Diane Cook (Harper’s)

‘Man v. Nature,’ by Diane Cook (NY Times)

About the Reviewer

Charlie Sterchi is a student in the MFA program at the University of Florida, where he studies fiction. His surname is Romanche for “one who dreams of Jeannie” and may possibly be the inspiration for the American sitcom I Dream of Jeannie, created by Sidney Sheldon and starring Barbara Eden and Larry Hagman, that ran from September 1965 to May 1970. To this very day, dreaming of Barbara Eden and other genies – but mainly Barbara Eden as she appeared in her famous, shall we say celestial, television role – remains an involuntary patrilineal preoccupation among Charlie and his kin. When he isn’t watching TV Land, Charlie enjoys reading Lorca and Barthelme whether in or out of the bath.

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