The Universal Physics of Escape
by Elizabeth Gonzalez
Press 53 (2015)
The Universal Physics of Escape was the winner of the 2015 Press 53 Award for short fiction, although there are plenty of facts to enrich the stories in this collection. While the eleven stories in Elizabeth Gonzalez’s collection are grounded in reality, many are also built around some kind of scientific information. Among other things, the characters in these stories experience shooting stars, the growth of rock formations in caves, the restoration of coal mining sites, and communication with an octopus.
In the very brief “Departure,” an unnamed character says, “Everything must be drawn from life… We like best that which is most true,” and that idea also works well for these stories. In the first story, “Shakedown,” winner of the Tusculum Review Prize, men work to restore an old train engine by replacing the boiler relief valve and draining the boiler to repair leaks in the tender. These kind of real details give authority and help the story come to life around the equally well-crafted characters. Pap, who is first introduced “out in the front yard in his underwear, pistol in his right hand, bathrobe flapping in the wind behind him like a cape,” drives a Thunderbird and used to play with his children by pulling his dentures loose and chasing them around. Gonzalez, by weaving together these two elements—fully developed characters and knowledge about what’s happening around them–creates a clear picture for the reader and is able to pass along little pieces of wisdom like this one: “…what’s a seized-up engine? It’s just a matter of work, that’s all anything ever is, all it ever was.”
Fact and fiction might come together best in the title story, where Claire, the main character, is a scientist overqualified for her work at a local museum. She is also raising two daughters with her husband and just beginning to give up some of the mom’s groups and volunteering she pursued in an effort to live “a normal life.” Claire finds insight about life from science:
Like Pluto, the big extinctions have seen a bit of a demotion lately. Some scientists now believe that even the P/T, the “Great Dying,” which extinguished around 70 percent of land-dwelling species and 96 percent of sea creatures, may have been not so much a massive catastrophe as a series of painful adjustments.
Life persists, and errors just become the new code.
But while she can see things in this technical way, she is also reflective about how she raised her children:
And she sees now that despite her best efforts, she has probably taught her daughters to question too much and laugh too hard and talk too loudly and opine too heartily and take things too hard and invest too much in every single person on the planet and every last wretched passing thing, and basically set them up to be just like her, which means she has failed, failed at the most important thing, failed them utterly.
A lot of the characters in this story collection are coming to terms with themselves, dealing with loss or change, and finding their place in the world. Gonzalez has an ear for dialogue and her settings are vividly rendered whether they are rural Pennsylvania or wintery Michigan, which makes this book a pleasure to experience. With language that is evocative but not superfluous, Gonzalez captures the emotion and complexity of her characters’ experience as well as offering an array of knowledge about the world around them; from war to animals and from cancer to physics. This is an impressive debut from an author whose work I’ll be following.