© 2024 WYPR
WYPR 88.1 FM Baltimore WYPF 88.1 FM Frederick WYPO 106.9 FM Ocean City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Little Washer Of Sorrows' Morphs The Mundane Into The Fantastic

The Little Washer of Sorrows is not what it seems. At first glance, the debut collection of short stories by Canadian author Katherine Fawcett offers funny, sympathetic sketches of characters who might live next door to you: The homemaker who underutilizes her college degree; the aspiring heavy metal musician with delusions of stardom; the aging couple who can barely muster the passion to even bicker anymore.

And it works well on this level alone; Fawcett has a flair for quiet drama and unfussy detail, and her dialogue positively fizzes. Little Washer startles, however, thanks to its commitment to the fantastic. Amid the mundaneness of these 19 contemporary tales, whimsy and weirdness abound. Artificial intelligence lurks in the suburbs. Accountants nurse monsters. Movie stars appear as mirages. If Fawcett's characters actually did live next door to you, your life would be in for some serious upheavals.

Fawcett lets her speculative side run wild. Like fellow fabulist Kelly Link — not to mention forebears such as Donald Barthleme — she finds fertile ground in the fuzzy territory between realism and surrealism. In "BLK MGC," a ripped-from-the-headlines pyramid scheme takes a left turn somewhere near The Twilight Zone; in "The Anniversary Present," an aging Mother Earth is addicted to beauty products while her husband, Father Time, has adulterous feelings for Sister Moon.

Domesticity plays as big a part in Fawcett's story as science fiction, fantasy, and mythology do. The tenderly combative interplay between the married couple in "Lenny and the Polyamphibians" — which only intensifies when a mermaid enters into the equation — is poignantly layered, even as it sparks with snark. The couple in Little Washer's title story, on the other hand, are haunted by the most prosaic of monsters: Bankruptcy. As their estate manager begins to exhibit supernatural qualities, though, the balance of reality gets turned on its side.

Little Washer is playful when it comes to age-old tropes, from android imposters to Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates. But they're still age-old tropes, and the book's one major flaw is an overreliance on clichés, as freshly as they're approached. Luckily Fawcett transcends that with her bright, nimble voice, not to mention her pop culture savvy and eye small, telling details: A hapless high school teacher presides over a class of students whose names all begin T; in purgatory, people love singing Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" at karaoke. It all works at a deeper level than these breezy stories might imply, as does Fawcett's use of technology as a complication for her characters. Alienated spouses use texting to maintain their disconnect; a computer buffering and freezing emphasizes the communication breakdown between teacher and pupils.

Occasionally a story flirts with fabulism without diving headlong into it — and in the case of "Suburban Wolf," it makes for the best bit in the book. Wagg is a part of a gang of semi-feral kids who roam neighborhoods, pack-like and barely civilized. Nothing about their situation is explained, nor does it need to be. It's only important to know that it's Wagg's 15th birthday, and he just received his first kiss, and that ecstatic coming of age isn't going to last long.

Just as Fawcett injects the weird into the mundane, she hides hard, barbed little truths in her otherwise lightweight yarns. "Captcha" might appear to be nothing but a clever spin on The Stepford Wives, but it winds up deftly exploring the nature of monogamy. "Swimming to Jonny Depp" seems like a sweet, silly vignette, but there's a nugget of sadness to the protagonist's middle-age daydreaming. Ultimately, The Little Washer of Sorrows is about epiphanies: their scarcity, their power, and their uncanny ability to make our everyday lives look downright unreal by comparison.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club and author of the novel Taft 2012.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.