[Riverhead; 2013]

Beginning Manuel Gonzales’s debut short story collection, The Miniature Wife, I was prepared to be overcome by wildly imaginative oddities and startling conceits. After all, just as carnivals boast of fantastic beasts and inhuman feats of aerobatics, Gonzales’s publisher entices the reader with promises of “strange and brilliant” inventions. To my surprise, the collection’s surrealist premises are, for the most part, expected tropes, often blatantly appropriated from popular and traditional mythology. “Escape from the Mall” features hapless shoppers threatened by an undead army. Gonzales sets “Farewell, Africa” after floods sink the entire African continent, a prediction that simply sensationalizes Al Gore documentaries. The plot of “Wolf!” revolves around a ferocious werewolf devouring a family, while a suburban family purchases a unicorn in “One Horned & Wild Eyed.” Borrowing equally from ancient mythology, Twilight Zone plot twists, and scientific oddities, the singularity of The Miniature Wife rests not with these concepts, but with Gonzales’s skillful use of fantasy to explore familiar human concerns.

The story “The Artist’s Voice” features one of the collection’s most original conceits. For the celebrated musician Karl Abbasonov, the mental act of composing results in physical paralysis. Doctors investigating the composer’s rare ailment discover Karl speaks only through his ears. A more conventional story might glorify Karl as a genius and mystic, admired but irrevocably estranged from ordinary people. Rather than exaggerate Karl’s extraordinary powers, Gonzales narrates the story with the impartiality of a reporter. Karl laughs off a museum’s offer to “preserve his body” to display “with a piano and . . . copies of his musical scores,” admitting an undeniably human reluctance to think about death. Gonzales’s refusal to dramatize difference transforms a bizarre premise into a subtly moving story. Here Gonzales understands how magic results from, rather than defies, the ordinary business of living.

In his best stories, Gonzales skillfully constructs believably lived-in realities, appropriating supernatural premises to explore emotional situations — personal angst, political detachment — commonly found in realist fiction. “One Horned & Wild Eyed” is narrated by an unemployed father whose best friend from childhood purchases a unicorn. Over the course of the story, both characters develop disturbing obsessions, sitting in thrall to the unicorn for days on end. The story vividly reflects middle-aged dissatisfaction and simultaneously conveys the sense of childhood longing for magic which cemented the two friends’ relationship. “Farewell, Africa” refrains from broad political commentary, focusing on the artistic struggles of an American speechwriter to explain the inexplicable natural disaster. As the protagonist gropes for words to account for the loss of an entire continent, Gonzales examines the tragedy’s subtle psychological effects on people worlds away from Africa. In “Escape from the Mall,” the zombie apocalypse presents the main character with a chance for reinvention as a self-sacrificing hero.

The Miniature Wife suffers when the surreality of Gonzales’s premises overwhelm the stories’ applicability to everyday human experience. Gonzales’s best stories unfold like skillful documentaries, building immediacy and energy through careful focus rather than dramatic narrative. “Wolf!” — arguably the collection’s least effective story — dramatizes a father’s transformation into a vicious werewolf who devours all but one of his children. The story’s onslaught of gruesome violence distracts from Gonzales’s more acute commentary on the cruelty of familial pressure. While a few insightful details — such as the werewolf’s insistence on consuming only family members who resemble him — reflect realistic emotional struggles between parents and children, the situation’s overwrought horror prevents readers from empathizing. “Wolf!,” a rare dud in an excellent collection, serves to highlight the carefully constructed characters of Gonzales’s other stories.

Fittingly, Gonzales’s collection ends with a meditation on fantastical situations as vehicles for individual redemption. “Without . . . violent tragedy, monsters, [and] zombies,” the protagonist of “Escape from the Mall” muses, “how would we meet the men and women of our dreams, how would we make up for our pasts, how would we show our true natures — brave, caring, strong, intelligent?”  At its best, The Miniature Wife exemplifies the function of literature: to create empathy out of distance, to make this strange, cold, cluttered world into something human.