Shena McAuliffe’s We Are A Teeming Wilderness
A Body Made of the Found, the Selected, the Borrowed, and the Otherwise Acquired: A Review of Shena McAuliffe’s We Are A Teeming Wilderness by Todd Alan Sikkilä
New from Press53 in 2023 comes a conceptually-ambitious short story collection from Shena McAuliffe, We Are A Teeming Wilderness. The collection’s titular piece features the collective organisms that combine to form a man named Glenn. In addition to the elements that are entirely Glenn, we learn that he has assimilated a variety of life forms that he has gathered over the course of his life. The character of Glenn provides an interesting through-line for the collection in that he can be read to represent all of us and the ways in which we acquire new bits that will comprise who we are as we go through life. Much of this is unconscious or random, like the bacteria we pick up from the lick of the family dog, or the handshake with a new friend. Other cells which come to inhabit our bodies seem to be there by choice, like the cells Glenn acquires from his partner Sophie when they kiss, hold hands, or make love. In the same way, these bits and pieces form the being known as Glenn, McAuliffe gathers various found, collected, or borrowed items around which she constructs her stories which then become the cohesive body that is this assemblage of short fiction.
McAuliffe is the author of the novel The Good Echo (Black Lawrence Press, 2018), and Glass, Light, Electricity: Essays (University of Alaska, 2020). Her short stories and essays have been widely published. She holds a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Utah and an MVA in Fiction writing from Washington University in St. Louis. She’s the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Assistant Professor of English at Union College in Schenectady, New York. Read her work in Issue 15 of Miracle Monocle.
The stories in We Are a Teeming Wilderness occur in a variety of settings and spaces in time, and deal with loss, loneliness, trauma, the willing suspension of disbelief, and the families we choose versus the ones we’re born into or create. While the acquired elements surrounding each story seem at first unrelated, the reader will soon see how they are connected as each selection is formed around these found, selected, or borrowed “organisms.”
An item perhaps discovered in an abandoned steamer trunk, the AUTOMATIC Sales Manual for distributors of silk hosiery forms the cellular basis for “Real Silk,” the story of a struggling and sexually inexperienced salesman. Ruben’s only companion is his mentally ill mother with whom he shares a home and for whom he serves as a caregiver. His isolation is accentuated by the fact that his mother is so lost in her disease that she barely acknowledges him. Sprinkled into the narrative are excerpts from the Sales Manual, including diagrams of how to correctly put on silk stockings. All this may be a little bit of a turn-on for a naïve, unmarried man in the 1920s. Ruben becomes enamored with one of his potential clients and makes a clumsy attempt to quell his feelings of desolation.
In “The Other Matter,” McAuliffe borrows the ancient work The Odyssey by Homer. Set in present-day Texas, the story deals with the experience of Latin Americans attempting to find a better life in this country. True to the original work, Odysseus returns to his family after having been presumed dead for years. What results is a multifaceted story that is about a father never giving up on his missing child’s return, the son’s subsequent return, and the idea that the family we collect along the way by choice and sometimes by necessity is often the one we can count on.
In another instance of a borrowed element, “Papyrus of the Yellow-Throated Warbler” draws from The Egyptian Book of the Dead. Using this ancient text, a couple of attempts to mummify a dead bird they discovered. This endeavor seems to be symbolic of the wronged partner’s attempt to salvage the relationship and forgive the indiscretion of the narrator. McAuliffe cleverly weaves in passages from the Egyptian text as the couple prepares the bird’s corpse and later as she describes the sexual encounter that led to the trouble between them.
“The Mugged Body” employs a borrowed diagram of the human body perhaps discovered in an early anatomy guide. The victim of a violent mugging, Quinn uses this diagram to describe the attack he suffered. “The Course to the Horizon” is a very short piece, born from a photo showing an early race-car from the 1930s or 40s. Similarly, a photo of a ferry and a fishing boat has formed the basis of “Victoria Pier, Montreal Harbor” another flash piece where a woman reflects on but does not necessarily regret never having wed or become a mother.
“Until We See Signs and Wonders” germinates from the story of a real-life Kentuckian born in the 1870s, clairvoyant Edgar Cayce. The found or borrowed item involved here is not just Cayce himself, but a flier obtained from the bulletin board at a post office in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The narrator, a professed atheist named Charlie Reilly, finds himself drawn to Cayce who professes that his clairvoyance is a gift from god. Initially arrogant in his disbelief, Charlie must admit the possibility that there is something beyond this life.
When I finally read the titular short story, I had already formed the analogy of the works being part of a “quilt” that was pieced together from the various items that McAuliffe gathers and then constructs into the body that becomes this collection, but “We Are a Teeming Wilderness” goes beyond the metaphor of connectedness to comment on something perhaps intrinsically human. A quilt is planned, contrived. All the pieces are deliberately chosen. The body of Glenn is partially constructed of the chosen, but much of it has a randomness to it. Many of its cells come along by chance. The elements that form the basis of each story are often chosen. McAuliffe clearly chose to borrow from Homer’s The Odyssey and The Egyptian Book of the Dead. However, the appearance of photographs, a flyer, the salesman’s manual, and an anatomical drawing all seem to occur much more by chance, as if randomly acquired. No matter how each element was gathered, they all fit together to form a gorgeous, solid, cohesive body.
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