That’s When the Knives Come Down by Dolan Morgan
Aforementioned Productions, 2014; 208 pp
Reviewed by Zach VandeZande
I read a lot of short story collections, in part because I have a terrible attention span fueled by the anxiety of whatever happens next in being alive, but also because I feel that short stories often are able to contain concepts that would burn a novel right down. Such is the case in Dolan Morgan’s That’s When the Knives Come Down, a brash and weird collection of stories that twist anxiously into themselves in their pursuit of an idea.
The dedication for this book is simply “For nothing.” From any other author, the dedication might read as a statement of glib nihilism or as a hip attempt at ironic distance. And yeah, maybe there’s a bit of that sentiment in the book, but we also have to consider that Morgan is playing a game that builds off of the fabulist tradition of Borges and Calvino and adds his own deeply odd perspective, which seems to be based on a need to make the abstract into something that can be grappled with on a personal or emotional level. In that light, Morgan’s desire to give nothing its due makes sense as an earnest statement. After all, this is a book of stories in which nothing might at any point be made not only manifest but vital to the lives of its characters; “Infestation” begins with both the absence of a plague of goats and the absence of the narrator’s wife, who goes about designing whole cities patterned after those absences; “There Are Places in New York City that Do Not Exist” sits somewhere between an oral history and a real estate appraisal of what’s not there (and is also, at its core, a very funny joke about living in a place where you’re never alone enough); “Plunge Headlong Into the Abyss with Guns Blazing and Legs Tangled” concerns an empty void that appears in Montana and the local government’s efforts to keep people from jumping into it. And of course people want to; that’s the kind of world we’re in.
If it’s not yet clear, this is a book full of strangeness, and strange books can come apart pretty easily if they’re not coming from an author with a careful control of his subject matter. That’s When the Knives Comes Down doesn’t come apart; instead, it takes an obverse, often thrilling tack in its defiance of what we normally think fiction is supposed to do. What makes these stories work, no matter if they’re about falling in love with furniture or how to have sex on other planets or a constant piercing sound that prevents all communication, is the philosophical and intellectual dedication that Morgan has toward exploring whatever is in his field of view. In short: Morgan has thought things all the way through, and in so doing has provided his reader with a set of stories that make sense (meaning an act of active creation) even when they don’t always make sense.
Maybe I’m thinking too deeply, though, because first and foremost this book is wickedly funny and absurd, even as its concepts are based on the tragedy of meaninglessness. For example: in the tightly-wound, escalating structure of “Cells”—a story in which each introduced character puts a knife to the throat of the previously introduced character until everyone alive is somehow wound up in the dual role of victim and aggressor—we’re given something that is at once goofy and wry and also intensely scrutinizing our base instincts and desires.
Though a few of the stories buckle under their own weight, and Morgan makes little attempt to guide his readers into his big ideas—either you’re going with him or you’re not—this is, I think, a book that’s well worth a reader’s time, and it signals the arrival of an innovative voice willing to push hard against the limits of what a story is supposed to do.