“Man V. Nature” by Diane Cook (2015)

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manvnature“They let me tend to my husband’s burial and settle his affairs, which means that for a few days I get to stay in my house, pretend he is away on business while I stand in the closet and sell his clothes.”

The world is a weird place. The news is full of things that seem like they’ve been yanked from the pages of fiction, so when you stumble on a book now that seems weird, you know you’ve hit something good. Diane Cook’s collection of short stories, Man V. Nature, are smart and well-written, but above all are weird and unsettling in ways you can’t quite describe.

There are twelve stories here, and each of them is a weird mixture of superbly realistic, and insanely fantastic. More often than not, the backgrounds or specifics of what is happening in each world is never clearly explained. In “Marrying Up”, we are told only the world “got bad”. In “The Way the End of Days Should Be”, there are just two houses left and the rest of the world has flooded, but we don’t know how or why. The first story, “Moving On”, takes place in a world where widowed spouses are put into institutions until they’re wanted again by someone else, though they seem to have little say in who they get to marry. It’s reminiscent of works like The Handmaid’s Tale or Only Ever Yours, where women are still treated as chattel, although some men appear to be in the same position. In “Flotsam”, the oddness is more magical, as a woman begins to find baby clothes in among her washing, despite having no children.

“Flotsam” also seems to be about women’s sexuality, perhaps an acknowledgement of women’s body clocks. Similarly, “A Wanted Man” is about female sexuality too, although seems at first perhaps to be about male sexuality. It features a man who is irresistible to all women and will guarantee them a pregnancy with one fuck. All he wants is someone to love, and to love him back, and he seems to fall in love with every new woman he meets, though they are all uninterested in settling down.

“The Mast Year” is an interesting look at the world. In it, the main character finds herself promoted and engaged in quick succession, and people begin to gather around her home, setting up tents and caravans, burrowing into her lawn, and climbing her trees. Her mother says that she’s experiencing a mast year. This references when a tree produces more fruit than usual, so people gather around it. Jane’s recent luck works as a magnet and the people are gathered around her in the hope that some of that luck rubs off on them. It feels like an extreme version of how we advertise ourselves on social media when things are going well – if you go by Instagram, everyone is currently living their best life – and then what happens when things go wrong and we have to start revealing the truth behind the smiles.

The titular story, “Man V. Nature” is about three men stuck in a rubber dinghy on an endless lake, with barely any food left and no protection from the scorching sun. Pretending that their predicament is a TV show, their bodies, brains and sanity wither away and they turn on one another and begin to reveal harsh secrets, and one of them learns that he’s not considered “one of the gang”, despite his desperate attempts to fit in.

Children are also common to several of the stories. “Somebody’s Baby” brings to life the fear new parents have that their child is in danger by making that danger a man who stands in your garden and, if you lose concentration for just one second, will enter your house and snatch your baby. The main question you’re left with at the end of that story is, “If you could suddenly get back everything you’d already said goodbye to, would you want it?” In another story, “The Not-Needed Forest”, several boys who society has deemed unneeded are sent to be killed but survive in a forest together instead, until the food supply runs low and they begin to compete with one another for survival.

Diane Cook has conjured up a shockingly brilliant collection of tales, each of them slightly unnerving and leaving you slightly unsure as to what just happened. There aren’t many answers, but to provide them would be to ruin the magic. Her stories contain something familiar, but are also like nothing you’ve ever read before. Haunting.

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“The Way Inn” by Will Wiles (2014)

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way inn“The bright red numbers on the radio-alarm clock beside my bed arranged themselves into the unfortunate shape of 6:12.”

Although I’m not much of a traveller, I am familiar with hotels. Actually, I quite like them. Mostly, though, I end up in budget hotels of the Travelodge or Premier Inn variety, and am always struck by the similarity that exists between the chains, regardless of where you actually are. The homogeneous nature of them is somewhat comforting, but also more than a little creepy. They can feel like non-places, buildings that you don’t really belong in, and can never feel quite at home.

The Way Inn introduces us to Neil Double, a professional conference-goer. His company serves a singular purpose – if you don’t want to waste working hours at a conference, but still want to know what gets said, Neil goes in your place, making notes, reporting back, and doing all the face-to-face business himself. This time, he finds himself at a conference for conference organisers, staying in another comfortably familiar branch of the Way Inn hotel chain.

However, after attending a few stalls and talks, he discovers that his cover is blown, and the conference organiser, Tom Laing, is not impressed by his new business model, which he claims will lose them ticket sales if one man can do the work of many companies. Banned from the conference, a dejected Neil returns to the hotel. Maybe he’ll get to sleep with that woman, if he could just remember her name, or maybe he’ll find that mysterious redhead he once encountered in a Way Inn in Qatar. He’s seen her once this weekend, and he thinks she works for the hotel. She seems far more interested in the hotel artwork than him, though.

After a restless night’s sleep, and with no conference to attend anymore, Neil begins to explore the hotel further and soon he finds himself stumbling into a mystery so huge and so strange that he could not even have begun to believe it. His life is about to be blown all out of proportion as the art-loving woman starts making him question his own reality. Who paints all those pictures in hotels? Where does one buy clock radios by the thousand? And just what would happen if you exited your hotel room and, instead of turning left towards the lifts, you turned right, deeper into the hotel?

This story actually takes on a conceit I’ve had for ages about these sorts of places and runs with it to places far better, funnier, scarier and greater than I could ever have done. Wiles is a master at focusing on the minutia of the thing, and chain hotels seem to be the perfect places to emphasis the tiny details. The mirrors in the lifts to make us feel less alone; the sofas in the corridors that aren’t meant for sitting in, but instead just to make it look furnished; the courtyards that look like meditation gardens but are only used by smokers; the strange unstealable coat hangers and unopenable windows. The hotel is as much of a character as any of the humans here, and it’s one that I think all of us can relate to.

Far funnier to me though is the idea of a conference for people who organise conferences; companies that specialise in selling lanyards, tote bags or conference centres. The idea that there is an industry overseeing the meetings of every other industry is hilarious, but also almost certainly the case. The idea of Neil being a professional conference surrogate is also an entertaining one, and if the idea doesn’t already exist, then I can see it coming to reality in five or ten years. While moving from hotel to hotel to listen to speeches about things you don’t really care about doesn’t appeal to me, I daresay there would be people willing to do it, and even more willing to pay for such a service.

I spent the first third of the book hoping that it would become what I hoped it would become, and thankfully it did, and the novel you’ve ended with is nothing really like the one you began. But Wiles changes tone and genre so wonderfully that you don’t even notice, and everything seems so real and oddly familiar. It welcomes you in like the little green light that flashes on a hotel lock when your keycard is recognised, and you’re more than happy to stay for the duration.

It’s a great read, and you’ll never want to check out at the end. In fact, you might not be able to…