Review of Small Creatures/Wide Field by John Mortara
John Mortara’s Small Creatures/Wide Field (theNewerYork Press) is a good-humored—at moments even celebratory—adventure through the nostalgia-soaked, meme-inspired, and often self-aggrandizing quest that is contemporary coming of age. Taking the form of a digital Choose Your Own Adventure, Small Creatures/Wide Field places the reader in a series of outlandish situations (“You are transported to an alternate dimension. Everyone is a turnip. They raise you as one of their own. You learn the ways of the turnip.”) and the slim text is augmented with absurdist, collage-style illustrations. The tone is irreverent and a little giddy—Mortara is performing for laughs from a friendly audience, having fun with language and form.
The trips through post-post-modern fantasy worlds and ironically self-aware fragments, however, always land us in the same place: the complicated and unfunny muck of young adult life. Here we find Jamie, a young woman whose stumbling attempts at self-sufficiency are often overshadowed by broken relationships and the relentless needs and mishaps of others. Her story is told in the few pages of straight prose, pages designed simply and without illustration. Indeed, all the splashy, slangy ebullience of the main text can seem like a purposeful misdirection, a plea to overlook the tender, simple story that hides behind the jokes. It is with Jamie that that book finds its emotional core. Through her we meet Charlie and Scott, men who are, perhaps, even less equipped than Jamie to navigate the modern-day gauntlets of love and sex, addictions, wars, and breakdowns. Jamie is the central point where the characters converge, and she is thoughtful, sad, sometimes too kind, alternately proud and utterly lost. We sense, but cannot be sure, that she is the woman behind the curtain, conjuring the wry, hilarious stories the rest of the book tells us, if only as a way to escape into a world both more ridiculous and more understandable than the one she inhabits.
The form is, in and of itself, a kind of sly joke about the reality of these characters’ lives. The interactive text (“Start prying off boards? p.9. Check out the basement? Page 20.”) evokes the candy-colored escapism of the nineteen-eighties Choose Your Own Adventure series, in which young readers imagined themselves as knights, space explorers, deep-sea divers, or any number of other dramatic personages bent on perilous quests. In Mortara’s tale, both the obstacles encountered and the ultimate goal of the quest are more oblique—here we don’t face any snarling dragons (well, there is one, but he seems to have spent some time in grad school), but instead we find fiery pits of people with dietary restrictions and wizards offering unpaid internships. If this loopy, smirking world is the wish-fulfilment of these characters (or of the reader) it is only in that here, within this story, they have choices at all.
In Small Creatures/Wide Field John Mortara accomplishes a delicate balancing act, creating a story in which the broad comedy does not blot out the human confusion it springs from, but also does not allow that emotional flailing to become too heavy or too indulgent. Growing up and living in a world full of other people is hard to do, Mortara suggests, but fairy-tale monsters and inside jokes do make it a little bit easier.
Emily Kiernan is the author of a novel, Great Divide (Unsolicited Press, 2014). Her short fiction has appeared in Pank, The Collagist, Monkeybicycle, decomP, The Good Men Project, Dark Sky, Redivider, JMWW, and other journals. She resides in Berkeley, California with her man and her dog. More information can be found at emilykiernan.com.
John Mortara is a poet, writer, designer, and indie publisher. He is the creator of voicemail poems and has a full length poetry collection forthcoming from yesyes books (‘some planet’ February 2015). Small Creatures/Wide Field is available from theNewerYork Press.