As my layman’s understanding of the human brain informs me, human attention is drawn to differences as opposed to similarities.Â We are surrounded by immense amounts of information during almost every moment of every day that we are alive as human beings.Â To cope with this overwhelming amount of information, we automatically ignore the familiar and concentrate our attention on the unfamiliar.
I suppose this makes sense.Â If we can immediately recognize an aspect of our surroundings as something for which we already have processed information, we can utilize that existing information to deal with that aspect and concentrate our processing capabilities on the aspects for which we do not have such ready data.Â This simplifies what our brains have to do on a moment-by-moment basis and prevents us from having an epic level freak out on a near constant basis (again, merely as I understand the processing of the human brain which is quite a bit simplified in itself).
Still, though this shortcut style processing probably enables humans to live in an amazingly complex world, there are some disadvantages.Â We may miss information that could very well be important because it is automatically classified as familiar and is accessed from memory instead of being freshly experienced.Â Do we even really see a tree when we run across one?Â Or, do we detect an object of the type ‘tree’ and instead deal with what we remember about trees instead of the particular tree we happen to be in front of?Â If we are just remembering instead of experiencing then I would argue that we might as well just permanently retire to our rooms with a cup of tea and a madeleine, permanently forsaking living actual lives in the real world.
I think this is true for fiction just the same way that it is for our physical environment.Â To elaborate, I think that we do not process stories as deeply if our brains see patterns so familiar that previously processed data can be substituted for what we can get from the stories.Â I submit that in such cases we are really more remembering old stories we have read than actually thinking about the particular story we are reading.Â If so, why even read the new story at all?
However, this argument becomes even more academic than it already is for most of the stories in Garrett Socol’s Gathered Here Together.Â I mean, Socol seems to have a knack for making sure the brain of the reader won’t relegate what it reads to the realm of the familiar.Â Though the stories are firmly grounded in the realm of ordinary experience, Socol seems to have endless ways of making that ordinary experience something new.
I immediately turn to one of my favorite stories in the collection, Sally’s Suicide Checklist.Â Bam, right from the beginning even the title jolts my brain into active experience processing mode rather than letting it remain in passive remembering mode.Â Then, without letting up, the story begins:
Returning home after having her stomach pumped was not one of Sally Biddle’s favorite activities.Â The food in her refrigerator would be growing mold, the toilet seat in her bathroom would be freezing cold, and more often than not â€“ dried blood would have to be hand-washed from the hickory hardwood floor in the living room.Â But here she was again, in the passenger seat of Adam Delgado’s white Infiniti, with its tinted windows and new car scent, pulling up to her empty duplex.
“If a dozen people are on the other side of the door waiting to scream ‘Surprise,’ I won’t speak to you for six months,” she warned.
If your brain can recognize anything familiar in this that does not need to be freshly experiences then I think you are Socol and remember writing it.Â Any other possibility than that and brain is lying.
For some reason, I find this flippant kind of humor hysterical.Â After all, this is suicide, not a cocktail party of the reasonably affluent.Â Truman Capote wishes he could have pulled this kind of wit off while he was alive. Perhaps it is the unlikely juxtaposition of the taboo subject of suicide with the flippant humor that my brain finds so unusual, but I can’t help but pay utter attention when I read the story.Â In short, there is nothing else to say but that I loved it.
Another example is the story Liquor Store Lust.Â In the story, the main character Suzy robs a liquor store in an attempt to pay for her little sister’s tonsillectomy.Â Now, I don’t think I would have found the story so interesting if that was all there was.Â True, it would be sad, but that sort of sadness is familiar.Â My brain would probably have remembered the last sad story I read like that and skimmed over what I was actually reading instead of truly experiencing the story.
However, thankfully, that is not all there is in Liquor Store Lust.Â While robbing the store Suzy has the clerk, Troy, put the money in a bag as well as a few peanut butter cups.Â He asks why she is robbing the store and she tells him:
“Because my sister needs her tonsils taken out,” she explained.Â “Now take off that T-shirt and those jeans.Â Kneel on the floor.”
Troy stripped in five seconds flat.Â The sight of his nude body, even more ripped than the jeans, gave Suzy a rush; she wanted to touch every part of him.Â She peeled off her clothing, and before she knew it, he was on top of her, moving and grinding.
I literally had to read this passage twice.Â Suzy is robbing a liquor store to pay for her sister’s operation and suddenly she’s having (consensual no less) sex with the clerk?Â What the hell is going on here?
Butâ€¦it works.Â As much as it causes my brain to screech to a mental halt, it makes total sense in the context of the story.Â At the same time, though it works, it jumps out at me as strange and unusual.Â My brain doesn’t recognize these oddly juxtaposed sob story and inappropriately timed consensual sex and so it processes the story fresh, really experiencing (delightfully) the story.
Now, don’t take this to mean that these stories are laden with gimmicks or that even all of these stories have this kind of odd juxtaposition.Â Some of the stories are quite normal.Â Some are happy, some sad, some moving, and some funny.Â Regardless of which are which, I got into these stories.Â All are well written and enjoyable; I’m just saying that some of these stories are delightfully unique.Â In any event, I had a great time reading Gathered Here Together.
David S. Atkinson is a Nebraska-born writer currently living in Denver.Â He holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska.Â His stories have appeared in (and/or are soon to be appearing in) “Gray Sparrow,” â€œChildren Churches and Daddies,â€ â€œSplit Quarterly,â€ â€œCannoli Pie,â€ â€œC4: The Chamber Four Lit Mag,â€ “Atticus Review,” “Brave Blue Mice,” and “Fine Lines.”Â His book reviews have appeared in “Gently Read Literature,” “The Rumpus,” and “All Things Pankish.” Â The web site dedicated to his writing can be found atÂ http://davidsatkinsonwriting.com/. Â He currently serves as a reader for “Gray Sparrow” and in his non-literary time he works as a patent attorney in Denver.