One of the pleasures of a short story collection is finding the threads that connect the stories. Even if they don’t share characters, or a common continuity, the stories all spring from the same churning subconscious, and so they always carry some DNA-deep similarities. On the surface, the stories in Spokane author Sam Ligon’s Wonderland don’t have much in common: one or two are steeped in realism, another is a retelling of a nursery rhyme, a couple read like longish dirty jokes.
But those connecting threads are there, pulling at the stories and making them bump into each other in interesting ways. A few of the stories prominently feature goats. Another two are about pies. Most of them, in one way or another, are about love. One or two are just out-and-out love stories. And those of us who aren’t privy to Ligon’s personal life might never know why those particular themes keep surfacing and submerging (maybe he had a traumatic encounter with a goat when he was a child?) and maybe learning the impetus behind those themes would result in nothing more than a gassy anticlimax. But in the end, they’re there, defiantly peeking out from the stages of Ligon’s stories amidst all the other characters and sets, and in the end, they make the book a better, more holistic reading experience.
The first two stories in Wonderland are fairly straightforward—possibly the most realistic of the 13—although your concept of “straightforward” may vary. The title story that opens the book is about a young man who falls in love with a bearded lady at the circus. They shave each other as a kind of foreplay: “I took a dip from her beard, then cut and salted her, licked her salty wound, and kissed her. And kept kissing her.” “You’re not a freak,” the bearded lady tells him later, “But I like you anyway.”
It’s in Wonderland’s third story when things start to get really bizarre. “The Little Goat” is about a pair of horny teenagers who sneak off to a quarry and make out. They kiss until their lips chap and they get a little closer to sex each time; she takes her shirt off and he takes his shirt off and everything feels kind of inevitable.
Enter the goat.
It appears out of nowhere and stares at the boy and the girl. She gets creeped out, and he decides he has to make a stand, scare the goat away for her honor. That’s when the goat decides to pass on its message: “You’re not doing it right,” he tells the couple. Then the goat proceeds to give the young lovers sex tips, and the whole thing gets so creepy and steamy and uncomfortable that the type on the page practically smears.
If you were reading “The Little Goat” in your high school English class, you’d probably write a paper on the symbolism of the goat: does it stand for the raw animal physicality that the young lovers are rediscovering? Is the goat a Satanic figure, like Black Phillip in the recent horror film The Witch? Or is it maybe just your everyday kind of talking goat? Part of the reason why education trains people out of loving literature is that we’re taught every story has a pat conclusion, a key that unlocks it like a puzzle box, and if your interpretation differs from the received wisdom then your interpretation is wrong. It’s just not so. Your reading of the horny talking goat is just as valid as anyone else’s understanding of the horny talking goat.
The most potent stories in Wonderland are built around a striking image or phrase that taints the realism surrounding them. A woman fondly recalls breastfeeding from her alcoholic mother, asking “Is there anything more adorable than a drunk toddler?” A member of a band talks pridefully about their “monster hit,” a single called “That’s Not Love Leaking from the Harpoon Hole in Your Heart.”
And in a short monologue titled “This Land Was Made for You & Me,” an unnamed author talks about developing an intellectual property as though it’s a real piece of land: “On my intellectual property, we’ll be accentuating the positive, generating happy endings, curing diseases, filling prisons, eating our pets. No. Loving our pets. Eating animals that aren’t our pets.” That chipper-but-caddywhompus vibe, where there’s something toothy and desperate hiding underneath every friendly grin, is as good a description of Wonderland as any.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant