Tunneling to the Center of the Earth
Although Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, Kevin Wilson’s first collection, includes two relatively realist stories“Mortal Combat,” about two teenage boys discovering their sexual attraction to each other, and “Go, Fight, Win,” about a teenage girl falling in love with a preteen boymost of the stories are propelled by various “what if” social or conceptual premises, primarily about nonexistent and unusual jobs. For example, the opening story, “Grand Stand-In,” one of the most intriguing and socially significant stories in the book, imagines what it would be like if there existed an organization that rented out grandparents to families who had lost them. The narrator of the story is a grandmother-for-hire who works for Grand Stand-In, a Nuclear Family Supplemental Provider. She admits that the concept of renting a grandparent is undeniably strange (as is true of most of Wilson’s stories); however, she says, once one accepts the concept, it begins to make a bizarre kind of sense. After all, contemporary society is largely populated by mobile couples, many of whom have lost their own parents. Such couples may believe that their children are missing out on an important part of their life experience.
The fifty-six-year-old narrator of “Grand Stand-In” serves as a grandmother to five families, traveling to each as called for but ready to disconnect from each when necessary. The twist of her current assignment is that the family’s real grandmother is still alive. However, because she has suffered a stroke and is in a home for the elderly, her son wants to start fresh with a grandmother with whom his child can interact and build good memories. When the grandchild asks for a lullaby that the stand-in does not know, she breaks the policy of the Supplemental Provider and becomes personally involved with the family by going to visit the real grandmother, only to find out that the son has hired a stand-in granddaughter to come and visit her. It is all finally too much for the narrator, so she quits, asking the company to kill her off for all her families. Wilson makes renting a grandmother a significant trope for society’s willingness to find faux substitutes for the lost “real thing.”
The concept, one is tempted to say “the gimmick,” in “Blowing Up on the Spot” is also an absurd but somehow believable job held by the story’s narrator. He works in a Scrabble factory, which creates letter tiles for Hasbro, Inc. The factory is made up of five large sorting rooms, each one with hundreds of workers who sort through all the wooden tiles that drop from an overhead chute. The job of the protagonist is to search for Q tiles, only one of which is included in each game of Scrabble. He has held the job for three years. He gets a bonus for each assigned letter he finds, managing to find approximately fifty to sixty Q tiles each day.
The invented job is a clever metaphor for meaningless, repetitive work, as well as a narrative means for focusing on a young man, lonely and alone, who seems to have no real purpose in life. The narrator’s main obsession is counting the steps it takes him to go back and forth to work. He lives with his brother in a small apartment above a confection shop, and the owner’s nineteen-year-old daughter, Joan, climbs up a ladder to his room each night to talk with him. Three years previous to the story, his parents blew up; they simply spontaneously combusted, and he now worries that the same thing might happen to him.
The narrator imagines various scenarios of his parents’ death, supposing that it occurred either because they suddenly realized that they did not love each other or because they had a moment of such happiness and love that they exploded wrapped in each other’s arms. Finally, he decides how he wants to imagine their death: His father looked at his mother and knew that she was on the verge of spontaneously combusting; he took her hand, pulled her close to him, and covered her body with his own, so they exploded together. After accepting this version of his parents’ death, the narrator quits his job and runs back to the candy shop to Joan, no longer trying to count the steps that he has always counted before.
The narrator of “The Museum of Whatnot” also has a strange job: She is the curator of the Carl Jensen Museum of Whatnot, which houses things that are ordinarily considered junk but that have been transformed into something interesting and valuable simply because someone collected them. One display is a row of jars that a man has filled with his toenail clippings; another is a set of eight thousand...
(The entire section is 1901 words.)