At the Edge of the Plausible in “Mothers and Dogs” – Chicago Review of Books


An avid reader of the short story will soon learn the basic elements that make the form tick: an irresistible opening line, clearly established characters, a central conflict, well-placed details, a satisfying ending. For the writer, these are more of a hypothesis than a formula. Each element can be elusive in its own way, not to mention style, which should be present in every word. (ChatGPT could never. A good short story reflects an individual sensibility, an unquantifiable mix of experience, thought and language.)  The pleasure of Fabio Morábito’s collection Mothers and Dogs (translated from Spanish by Curtis Bauer) lies primarily in the elegant way the author maneuvers the mechanics of a story. The length is key: the stories are truly short. All 15 in the collection are under 6,000 words, each a self-contained experience that’s easily taken in. The true source of their tension often lies not in the conflict at hand but in the anticipation of how the author will resolve, or at least adequately exit, the odd situations he has orchestrated. Often the tension isn’t released until the last line, although there’s no recourse to gimmicky twist endings.

Veering into the uncanny or surreal can be a tempting move in a short story, as brevity obviates explanation, and the emphasis remains on a central bizarre image or metaphor. The danger is indulging the grotesque or weird for its own sake, betraying even the internal logic of a fictional world. Morábito wisely sidesteps this tendency and instead skates at the very edge of plausible reality or probable scenarios. Strangers are pushed into sudden intimacy, as in the opening story, “The Sailboat,” in which a man enters his childhood home under false pretenses and starts advising the resident family on how best to arrange the furniture, or “Lying in the Sun,” where a proselytizing Jehovah’s Witness offers to rub sunscreen on a man relaxing in his friend’s yard. Other stories explore the consequences of small disruptions to the social order, as in “On the Track,” in which the lights go out on a public running track and the amateur runners suddenly grow violent. Morábito is careful with detail, his prose direct and workmanlike. These are not slice-of-life tales dependent on setting, nor are the stories particularly voice-driven. The narrator is usually detached and swiftly places the reader in a house in the suburbs of Mexico City, a morning stroll in Berlin, or an anonymous regional bus stop. The off-kilter encounters are sometimes funny in an uncomfortable way, sometimes melancholy or disturbing.

Not every story hits the mark, especially when women are involved. In the single story with a female narrator, Morábito’s signature awkward encounter occurs between the teenage protagonist and her best girl friend, who grabs her breasts whenever opportunity presents itself, while the story titled “Roxie Moore” concerns a dead porn star, whose body is stripped naked, then sealed in a coffin, with her rear end facing up, by a group of her creep fans. While a generous reading might claim that the author was trying to provoke disgust or horror at the woman’s dehumanization, based on the point of view of the narrator—one of Roxie’s reverent superfans—and his descriptions, I read the intent as humorous: “There was Roxie Moore’s formidable ass, the Mecca of all my XXX pilgrimages! Who knows how many hearts had been destroyed by these two white hemispheres […] Roxie had reached her peculiar perfection on all fours and it was only right for her to spend her eternal rest facedown.”

Families pervade the more emotionally resonant stories. Unhappy parents, a beloved aunt, a demanding brother make an appearance, whereas relationships between couples, when present, are in the background, and broken. The protagonists tend to be solitary, phlegmatic men. The most successful stories share an obsession with memory, both its potential to illuminate the present and its slippery, deceptive qualities. In “The Balcony,” a man reconnects with his cousin to unlock an episode from their childhood, which both fear has determined the course of their life, while in “The Quarry,” a boy’s journey on a bike in the snow is diminished from great adventure to childish episode when it is repeated later that year, in the summer heat amid family troubles, and punctuated by his first cigarette. The recurring theme of memory is not redundant, but rather binds together an eclectic collection by a confident practitioner of the form.

See Also

Mothers and Dogs
By Fabio Morábito
Other Press
Published May 16, 2023


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