Man V. Nature by Diane Cook
Harper Collins, 2014; 255 pp
Reviewed by Courtney Craggett
In the first paragraph in Diane Cook’s debut collection, a husband dies. His widow buries him, smells his clothes, cooks too much food, gathers pictures. And then the paragraph ends. In the next, a Placement Team escorts the widow to a facility where she will be trained in “Moving On” until a new husband chooses her.
From the second paragraph on, Man V. Nature offers a world of floods, kidnappings, horrible monsters, apocalyptic settings, and bizarre and yet strangely familiar characters. The world is falling apart in this collection. It is over-peopled and full of dangers. Characters risk their lives by stepping out their doors. Even stories without apocryphal backdrops present strange perils or situations – a man who serially kidnaps children, another whose body is so desired for sex that he impregnates 50 women every day but cannot find love.
I love the title of this book, obvious at first as readers watch characters fighting against a world that is doing its best to destroy them, yet also layered. The natural world is rarely the real enemy in Man V. Nature. True, the characters face monsters and floods and the end of civilization, but the ways they battle themselves and their own humanity present an even greater danger. Cook illustrates with stunning insightfulness how quickly people can turn on best friends, betray colleagues, and even forget their own children. Cook has taken bizarre and fantastical worlds and somehow made them fade behind what is even stranger: human nature. She examines what motivates people, why they are drawn to and away from each other, why they sabotage themselves and each other.
Human nature does not just divide here, though. Sometimes it pulls people together. In “It’s Coming,” for example, two officemates running for their lives manage to find moments of desperate connection before they are violently killed. In “Meteorologist Dave Santana,” a woman who is an expert at seducing men falls in love with the meteorologist and must discover her own strengths and weaknesses as she tries to make him fall for her. This collection is a stunning portrayal of human nature, in all its oddities, its darkness, and its triumphs.
While most of the stories in Man V. Nature are set in an apocalyptic future, Cook discloses very little actual information about what is happening on a broader scale, instead using some familiar science fiction settings to write stories about being human. The few stories that actually do take place in a recognizable world feel as strange as all the other stories, revealing perhaps that the true oddness comes through what we humans are capable of (a teenage girl forcing her friends to perform an abortion on her, for example) and not just from monsters crashing through office buildings. Whether these stories occur at the end of the world or simply on a normal day, they manage to be shocking and insightful, both tragic and hopeful at once.
In the title story, three men are improbably stranded on a lake, and they find their own jealousies and mistrust more dangerous than the days and nights without food in the lifeboat. As they drift, one friend imagines a television show to explain their unlikely predicament, and he names it “Man V. Nature.” “It’s so simple,” he explains. “It’s man versus everything. It’s me. It’s you. It’s us. It’s in us.”