Tunneling to the Center of The Earth
 by Kevin Wilson

Ecco/HarperPerennial 2009
Paperback
First Collection
Awards: Winner, Alex Award; Joint winner, 2009 Shirley Jackson Award







"The key to this job is to always remember that you aren’t replacing anyone’s grandmother. You aren’t trying to be a better grandmother than the first one. For all intents and purposes, you are the grandmother, and always have been "

Reviewed by Tessa Mellas


Oscillating between absurd, poignant, hilarious and unsettling, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth is that rare collection that contains no clunkers. All the stories are great, several brilliant. With Wilson, quirk is the name of the game, but not quirk for its own sake. Wilson pushes stories to the far edge of strangeness only to show the common frailty that makes this odd cast of characters human.

He pushes oddity further than most writers would or could, such as in the story Blowing up on the Spot, which tells of two brothers trying to cope with the instability of a world in which their parents have spontaneously combusted on a train. The eldest brother obsessively counts his steps, works in a Scrabble factory wading up to his knees in tiles in search of Qs, and dates a wacky downstairs neighbor who works in a bakery and thus has hair that tastes like sugar. The younger brother compulsively attempts suicide in between practicing his swim strokes while suspended from two chairs in the living room. You’d think it’d be too much, but it isn’t.

Wilson's protagonists are mostly Gen. X’ers in their 20s and 30s, struggling with the transition between youth and adulthood or in many cases simply struggling to interact with other people. Many prefer solitude. Many hide, occupying themselves with quiz trivia, model cars, collections of spoons. Wilson reminds us that suburban life, a college education, and materialism are no easy cures for unhappiness, hinting that perhaps these elements are what unsettle our lives. He satirizes academia as too narrowly specialized with useless majors like the catastrophe sciences and Morse code. And most characters are engaged in meaningless or odd endeavors and jobs—playing a stand-in grandparent, overseeing a museum of useless collections, working at a noise factory, digging sophisticated circuits of tunnels under the city, performing in a sideshow act as Maximillian Bullet, who shoots his brains out every night.

Wilson bends our reality, taking us to uncomfortable extremes and experimenting with form and perspective in order to hit emotional high notes outside of normal narrative range. In The Dead Sister's Handbook: A Guide for Sensitive Boys, Wilson uses the sterile form of a reference book to reinvent the story of angst ridden girls prone to suicide and self-abuse, using a detached tone to evoke terror. This story achieves its power by deflecting the focus from disturbed suicidal girls to their brothers, who are scared shitless, incapable of stopping their sisters’ deaths, and in desperate need of advice on how to exist when their models of femininity drop into oblivion. Wilson’s prose achieves emotion and beauty in its mechanical dead-pan tone as when he writes, "In the days before death occurs, the heavy deposits of fate inside the dead sister’s body serve as a conduit for the discharge of atmospheric electricity" or "The sheaths that protect the upper end of the fingers of the dead sister contain small doses of tricyclic antidepressants (see also Attempts to Medicate). During stressful situations, the ingestion of the nails potentiates the action of catecholamines and creates a low-level sense of well-being and calm […] In particularly bad moments, the dead sister will chew her nails down to the quick and into the flesh, leaving tiny crescents of blood on the papers of tests, the sleeves of her shirts, the skin of those she touches".

Another stand-out is The Choir Director Affair, (The Baby’s Teeth), a metafictional piece in which the writer’s attempt to tell the story about a man’s affair with a red head choir director keeps getting derailed by the reader’s more intense interest in the adulterer’s baby, who possesses an enormous set of teeth. The reader, addressed in second person, is a conspirator in the affair for the reader is the father’s friend who covers for him and watches the big-teethed baby while he carries on his indiscretions. Thus the reader is made guilty by mere presence as an onlooker of the narrative, and our guilt at least partially stems from the fact that we are mystified and drawn to strangeness. Wilson writes, "In the coming months, there will be many things. Fights, accusations, declarations of love and hate. It is heartbreaking, but you only want to know of the baby, where it is, what it is doing, is it smiling. We have grown tired. The story is hard to tell. The evaporation of love makes us think of our own lives. We have tried to make you see this, but always the baby". So it is with Wilson’s writing. He tries to make us see what is real and sad and true, and does so successfully, but always in front of it all is a thick layer of absurdity that holds us rapt, all the while laughing.


Read the title story from this collection in the Barcelona Review


Tessa Mellas is a PhD student at the University of Cincinnati. She has published fiction in StoryQuarterly, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Gulf Coast, Fugue, and New Orleans Review. Her book reviews have appeared in Mid-American Review, Sycamore Review, and New Pages. She is an editorial assistant for The Cincinnati Review.
                     
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Kevin Wilson is the author of the collection, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth (Ecco/Harper Perennial, 2009), which received an Alex Award from the American Library Association and the Shirley Jackson Award. His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, Tin House, One Story, Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere, and has appeared in four volumes of the New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best anthology. He has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the KHN Center for the Arts. He lives in Sewanee, Tennessee, with his wife, the poet Leigh Anne Couch, and his son, Griff, where he teaches fiction at the University of the South and helps run the Sewanee Writers’ Conference

Read an interview with Kevin Wilson