‘Life on Mars’ by Lori McNulty

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Amanda Leduc

Stepping into the world of Lori McNulty is like stepping onto the sand of the Red Planet—you think you know what’s coming until you don’t, and even the surprises turn back on themselves in ways that seem to come out of nowhere. McNulty, of course, is no stranger to short fiction—her stories have been published across the country and widely anthologized, and she has twice been nominated for the Journey Prize in addition to also being a three-time longlist finalist for the CBC Canada Writes contests in both the Fiction and Non-Fiction categories—but each story in Life on Mars, McNulty’s new story collection out with Goose Lane, offers a glimpse into a world as strange as that of the far-away planet.

A precocious boy forges an unlikely, murderous bond with his “sister”—a badger that his family adopted and now clings to in the wake of their father’s death; a heartsick man copes with the dissolution of his marriage by keeping a beached squid named Dan alive in his apartment; a woman falls in lust and desperation with the cult-leader-like Reverend who comes to her isolated prairie town. McNulty’s focus on the creep of time and the downtrodden, mundane realities of life on the fringes at times echoes the precision of Kevin Hardcastle’s Debris or Kris Bertin’s Bad Things Happen—but the similarities end where the oddities begin. Jolted out of complacency by crisis or otherworldly intervention, the people in McNulty’s stories are surprised in a way that manages to be both unexpected and inevitable, a testament to McNulty’s gift with narrative.

And yet, despite the surprises, the worlds are also achingly familiar: the way a transgender woman and her mother seek to find their way back to one another after gender reassignment surgery; the terror of a recent transplant recipient who’s having conversations with the deceased, previous owner of his heart. Strange and forsaken though these settings may be, they hearken to the oddities at the heart of all our lives: what does it mean to love and be loved, to grieve, to continue in a world that no longer makes sense? Each story circles back to these questions the same way that they circle back to the spectre of Mars, which is a constant, subtle thread played out in various guises throughout the collection—in a character’s name, or the mention of far-away dots in the sky.

There’s a slow burn to many of these stories—McNulty isn’t afraid to trust her readers. The world-building is unique and often throws the reader right in, leaving them to flounder and figure out how each story works. It’s a step at once refreshing and frustrating that nonetheless can make for a wild pay-off. The short story “If On a Winter’s Night a Badger” is a great example of this, as is the story “Prey,” which left me feeling increasingly clueless until everything hit an a-ha! moment that had me laughing out loud in delight.

There are moments when McNulty’s use of language, coupled with the myriad of oddities on display in her stories, contributes to a denseness that can make it hard to keep reading. Sentences are laden with adjectives and what an old writing professor of mine used to call good verbs: “Midnight is a flame-tip in my skunky mouth, loitering near the Albert Street underpass, watching cars spit out of this shadow hole.” On its own, each sentence is technically impressive and coiled with power, but when strung together, occupying whole stories, the effect can occasionally be overwhelming. Though I admire McNulty’s virtuosity, I found myself wishing at times for language that was slightly more unobtrusive—language that could step back and let the narratives play out their off-kilter endings.

But this is a small quibble, and indeed probably speaks more to how Life on Mars is best taken in bits, as with all kinds of strangeness—slowly, over a span of time, the understanding of each story’s world coming gradually over the reader until it all flares up in a moment of light. Like swimming through the darkness of Dan the Squid’s black ink, Life on Mars is an experience at once illuminating and unreal. It is perhaps not a collection you’d find in the usual realm of CanLit—but it’s a collection you won’t soon forget, either.

Goose Lane | 296 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN# 9780864928887

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Amanda Leduc

Amanda Leduc's stories and essays have been published across Canada, the US, and the UK. She is the author of The Miracles of Ordinary Men (ECW Press, 2013), and The Centaur's Wife, forthcoming from Random House Canada in 2018.