Reptile House by Robin McLean
BOA Editions Ltd.; 2015; 216 pp
Reviewed by Megan Turner
Disclosure: I studied fiction with Robin McLean at the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“Death is a cricket by a creek. A million dead, a million born. A million dead again. So on, and yet. The willow is eaten, the moose is eaten. The fish never swam home. A blue whale yawns. A foot crushes a nest. A tremendous hoof. A splendid club. A bird hits the windshield, chaos of nature. A man drops from cancer, age, or accident, is forgotten, and never was.”
Odd things happen in Reptile House, a debut collection by Robin McLean. While the stories in this collection are not, at first glance, odd, they often end in an unusual place, taking the reader on a journey through deserts, lakes, and rooftops, one location just as unfamiliar as the next.
The stories in this collection are puzzles of sorts, ones the reader must try to decipher. The first story is an example of this odd puzzling. “Cold Snap” starts with a seemingly normal woman, Lilibeth, who is experiencing what one might call the winter blues, but as the story develops, the reader sinks deeper and deeper into Lilibeth’s maddening world, a place where cold weather can threaten the very nature of one’s sanity.
Very often, the stories in McLean’s collection turn violent, which is often surprising considering where they begin. One line in “No Name Creek” reads, “The peaks jabbed at the sky and the sky just sat there and took it.” The line itself is peculiar for its use of violence, its structural oddity, yet it is also indicative of the greater violence found throughout this book.
Some of my favorite stories come towards the end of the collection. I found “For Swimmers” to be both reflective and beautifully imagined. The story describes Ruth, who has an affair with a married man, Jim. This affair, while promising at first, ultimately proves punishing for Ruth but not Jim, who stays with his wife. The heartache found in this story is real, yet there is also a buoyancy to Ruth and to the piece itself, which stays afloat much like a swimmer bobbing in the water. I also enjoyed “The True End to All Sad Times,” which features Marlon, a man who believes he is having a connection with a blind man on a bus.
In “Blue Nevus,” one of the final stories in the collection, a man named Roger Cotton has an apparently benign mark on his arm. Yet, as the story develops, the blue nevus seems to grow, taking over the man’s life. McLean writes, “When done with the sideburns, Roger pressed the blade to the neck of Blue Nevus but did not cut. Everything was backward in the mirror, confusing and dangerous. Roger Cotton went to bed since a good night sleep changes everything.”
What’s most unique about McLean’s stories is how often they force the reader to reconsider the events contained within them. The stories do not always end in an obvious place nor can they be easily deciphered. McLean’s sentences, so carefully constructed, also force the reader to reconsider. They enter troubled, longing psyches, territory perhaps unfamiliar to most readers. While some may consider these stories quirky, I believe they are full of quite normal longings. In fact, upon investigating further, one might start to see oneself hidden beneath these stories, among their obscurity and violence.