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Best of Boston 2009

The shape of things

Portlander's stories explore the connections between what's inside and out
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  April 1, 2009


We are shaped by what surrounds us. Our exteriors — meaning geographical locations, physical infrastructure, and bodies alike — affect our interior states of mind. At the same time, our interior landscapes influence the way we experience what's around us. So suggests West End author Andrew McNabb, whose new collection of stories, The Body Of This, was released this month by Portland publisher Warren Machine Company.

McNabb's brief stories (there are 28 total in this slim volume) are full of detailed physical descriptions of both interior and exterior terrains. The characters struggle to find their places, in the world at-large and in relation to other people. They are immigrants, elderly people, city mice gone country, and lovers. In many cases, they interact rather clinically, both with each other and with their surroundings. This is a collection that strives to dissect and distill, to remind us that disparate parts and individual sensations are the bricks that comprise the buildings of our lives. It's not a comforting read, but it still has something of a celebratory feel; it revels in, as one character puts it, "The beauty and surprise of pure human potential!"

To that end, McNabb takes a spare approach in describing the raw realities of the human body. A caesarean-section birth is "that second child being pulled through the hole they'd cut in her lower abdomen;" a breast — an enticing one, at that — is described as "a flat and dirty vessel." One entire story, "Extrusion," treats the unsavory topic of human and canine shit.

"The paradox," the narrator muses. "The way something so dirty — the ultimate in physically dirty — could be so cleansing. Not just in the sense that it could be jettisoned, expunged, purged — extruded; but that it could be so grounding. God's reminder? God's joke? ... The great equalizer! Truck drivers; heiresses. The varieties of shape and composition and size ... All the hues of the dirtiest rainbow you would ever see. And the nuances, like snowflakes or fingerprints — no two exactly alike."

(When's the last time crap was compared with snowflakes?)

The most successful stories in the collection are those that merge inner and outer influences. The book's opening story, "The Architecture of Things," does just that, showing how the growth of a relationship depends on both internal and external structures, such as the parameters of a sexual relationship, the union of physical forms, or the hope that comes with a new home. But in the end, once that foundation is laid, the reader is left thinking that some relationships may transcend "all of that interconnected hardware."

In "The Artist," McNabb again blurs the distinction between animate and inanimate objects, anthropomorphizing a building, then giving its inhabitants many of the same traits. By breathing life into brick edifices, McNabb offers sharp contrast to the wishes of the story's main character, who announces in the story's second sentence that he wants to die.

For all this verbal exploration of shape and structure, McNabb's stories might be expected to experiment with form. They do not. These are relatively straightforward short-shorts, nuggets of realism presented in a way that reminds us that little incidents are what make up the larger stories of our lives.

And McNabb doesn't neglect what some would call the largest story of all. Spirituality features prominently in his work, leading the reader to consider how the concept of God relates to space, bodies, and architecture. Perhaps religion is just one more structure we use to order our lives.

"But let's leave these structures and all other structures within eyeshot because they have their own stories and to look at them too closely is to spend too much time, and to not study them is to not understand," he writes in "Compartments." "Just know that they are part of this symmetry of wood and brick, some compartment buildings, some not, all of them together making up this street, this area. Now, come inside."

Deirdre Fulton can be reached at

ANDREW MCNABB reads from The Body of This | Warren Machine | 164 pages | $21.95 | at Maine Irish Heritage Center, 34 Gray St, Portland | April 2 @ 6:30 pm | at Maine Festival of the Book, Abromson Center, USM, Portland | April 4 @ 3:30 pm | Free

  Topics: Books , Andrew McNabb, Maine Irish Heritage Center, Portland,  More more >
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