This last week I’ve had the great pleasure to read author Molly Reid’s The Rapture Index: A Suburban Bestiary. To summarize: this work kicked my ass, in the best way possible. It’s a really stunning debut, the kind of short story collection that makes you feel sad at the end because you’re desperate to read more.
The Rapture Index won the BOA Editions, LTD 7th Annual Short Story Contest (2019), and was nominated/longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection and the Short Story Prize.
In other words, this short story collection comes with a pedigree. What makes it kind of amazing, though, is that the work itself doesn’t feel like a prestige project–and I mean that in the best way possible.
There is a lightness to the collection that is refreshing, especially in these heavy times. There is less “navel gazing” and more humor per page than almost any collection I have read. Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay the work is this: it taught me a lot about how to select and edit work of others for Oscilloscope, and how to proceed with my own attempts at writing fiction.
My wife (we read much of the work together each evening, taking turns reading stories aloud), called Permutations of A (one of the stories in the collection), “Better than Carver,” which I advised her was probably heresy, but she’s not prone to hyperbole and she’s not wrong.
The Rapture Index is often set in the suburbs, but it’s not the opaque yet nostalgic suburbs of our youth (like in Arcade Fire’s album, The Suburbs); instead the work reflects and meditates on the shadows and dreamscapes of the suburbs of today–the ones we are helping to create.
A common theme in the work is intelligent characters making bad decisions; sometimes out of carelessness, but more often out of flaws in their characters brought on by difficult childhoods or life situations. (and the characters are so three-dimensional, most of this you can just sense, as you can with colleagues, friends, or acquaintances you meet in real life. It’s baked into the stories but not overt, which makes it all the more potent.)
Another common thread throughout the work is the “Bestiary,” theme (certainly not to be confused with bestiality.)
I’m going to take a moment to define bestiary for those not familiar with the concept.
Bestiary (noun), A descriptive or anecdotal treatise on various real or mythical kinds of animals, especially a medieval work with a moralizing tone.
The author does share a pastiche of animal descriptions throughout the work, serving as a break between short stories. There is an apocalyptic yet comical vibe to these scenes, descriptions of increasingly dangerous animals to reflect our increasingly dangerous society, all while winking to the readers that yes, us humans remain the apex predator, in the suburbs or otherwise. There are also many references to birds throughout the work, and yet the Rapture Index is mostly concerned with the strange, lovely, horrible, unique, cliched, and grotesque nature of humans.
When will we own up to the fact that we ourselves are animals, most fully alive as we stalk and slink and howl–and maybe, the real problem is, that we ever tried to pretend otherwise?
What’s great about the above quote from the collection, is that it reflects an issue we have faced as a species dating back to the story of the Garden of Eden–the moment we put ourselves above “common animals,” and took on the ambition to have a code of conduct and all the complexity that is found therein.
Religion/fractured belief is another theme throughout the work. How can we function in a post-religious world? What does an atheist or an agnostic do when their child deeply desires to be religious? What obligation do we have to the dead, let alone the living? How do we navigate the often blurred line between minding our own business and leaving others at risk?
Many of the characters are struggling, or have struggled. They are from the “working class,” or “working class roots,” which is a rarity in much of today’s fiction where everyone is either “well-off” or completely impoverished. Our culture often acts as though the suburbs is nothing but “doctors, and lawyers, and business executives,” but beyond the picket fences we find the apartments, condos, and dilapidated homes that make up the majority of the suburban landscape (in reality, if not on television).
Perhaps I’m partial to such a setting, having grown up in just such a world, but it’s fascinating to see a talented author grapple with this reality in a new way. (And to recognize the paradox that there is both good and bad there, as anywhere, rather than treating such characters as one or two dimensional objects to move the story forward.)
In Happy You’re Here the author addresses the helplessness one feels attempting to visit a sick parent following estrangement. Reid recognizes that there is a helpless feeling on both sides of that equation. I’ve been there and I know this is accurate. The story veers away from the sentimental, rightly so. The metaphor of a dead whale washed ashore is a powerful image throughout this story.
In the title story The Rapture Index, a wife watches as her family is turned upside down by her doctor husband having either a mid-life crises or suffering from post-concussion syndrome, and her son believing the apocalypse/rapture is at hand. This story, like many of the others, is often laugh-out-loud funny.
In another stand-out (one of many), Summer People, the characters can almost be stand-ins for our current world situation. These days, aren’t we all “summer people,” stuck inside, often out of work, getting flabby and weak from atrophy and inertia?
The collection also includes a neat choose your own adventure story, All Men (I made bad decisions, but I suppose that makes sense), Permutations of A, about a mother trying to hold things together with a teenage daughter while being a newly single mother, and many other stories that veer from the lightly surreal/comical (3D Printing: A Love Story), to the thought-provoking and disturbing (The First Location).
There’s really not a bad story in the collection, and the consistency of the work is another reason I am glad to recommend it to anyone I can.
I definitely can’t wait to follow Reid’s career and to see what she writes next. I’m assuming there will be a novel at some point, but I hope she will continue to write short stories; for she has a real knack for the work and has produced an important collection for our current era, yet one that seems likely to stand the test of time.
Below is the link one more time. (this is not an affiliate link, just my attempt to get even more people to read this stunning work.)