I can, fortunately or un-, remember exactly when it was I last read a book of stories as compelling and gasp-inducingly fucking gorgeous as Patrick Somerville’s The Universe in Miniature in Miniature: it was four years ago, and it was Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners. There’ve been great collections since then, of course—Blake Butler‘s Scortch Atlas comes instantly to mind, plus every collection ever by Jim Shepard—but it’s been a long, long time since I’ve been this knocked back and shocked by a book.
“The Universe” is noteworthy in how it takes the serious and philosophical and makes it approachable, playful or both. With unflagging humor and an emphasis on how we are all in the same, utterly human situation, Somerville keeps the stories from creeping into despondency. It’s as though he’s both the creator of your pensive mood, and the friend who pulls the improbably silly antics that manage to make you smile in spite of it.
pub weekly reviews the universe in miniature in miniature
In “The Machine of Understanding Other People,” the novella that concludes this marvelous set of loosely connected stories, the main character is bequeathed a helmet that enables him entry into the minds of others. Perhaps Somerville (The Cradle) had access to such a device as he crafted his wide-ranging yet wonderfully authentic narrators. Several stories offer intimate access into seemingly real life—a teenager nurses a crush on a teacher as her parents separate, a man recalls a friendly relationship with long-ago proprietors of his corner store—but Somerville’s originality shines most when palpably human characters navigate mind-bending scenarios. Students at the School of Surreal Thought and Design are consumed by their vaguely artistic projects but have no instructors, classes, or campus; a new couple faces the aftermath of the end of Earth’s orbit yet continue their mundane squabbles (“I was mad and she said, ‘The world ended,’ and I said, ‘That’s not the point.’”). These densely layered tales invite multiple readings, but even a glance uncovers profound human connection beneath Somerville’s often whimsical surface. (Dec.)
foreword magazine reviews the universe in miniature in miniature
In The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, novelist Patrick Somerville offers a collection of short stories that transports readers into electrified landscapes of the mind. Eclectic and edgy, these fifteen stories range widely in subject matter and style, obsessing over the delicious details of existence—reality, love, purpose, and meaning—through the perspectives of refreshingly morose, erratic, and often unstable characters.
nylon magazine reviews the universe in miniature in miniature
The Universe in Miniature in Miniature gives Sci-Fi such a dose of dark humor, style, and domesticity that it really can’t be classified as geek-lit. Through 15 exquisitely drawn portraits—like the title story, about a lovelorn artist who makes models of boys and their fathers making models of the universe—author Patrick Somerville pairs themes that are delightfully abstract with contemporary dialogue. All this culminates in a mysterious mini-thriller, the front and back covers of which fold out into a miniature model of the solar system. - Alice Vincent
booklist reviews the universe in miniature in miniature
After the restraint of his well-received first novel, The Cradle (2009), Somerville returns to the short story and unleashes the full force of his mischievous imagination. In this inventive and robust collection loosely anchored to the Midwest town of Grayson, and the mysterious School of Surreal Thought and Design, straight-ahead stories that take new slants on familiar themes—family dysfunction, a high-school student’s crush on a teacher—are yoked to bold tales that deliver psychological realism to the outskirts of speculative and science fiction. There’s a hilarious vignette about a catastrophically inept spaceship admiral and a terrifying story about how people behave when the earth stops spinning. The spooky title story portrays a trio of rogue students embroiled in disturbing projects, while “The Machine of Understanding Other People” is a comic yet wrenching adventure story about a strange inheritance and a dangerous dream of preventing “the destruction of the world.” Attuned to the apocalyptic, Somerville, like Jim Shepard and Joe Meno, creates ensnaring plots and involving characters in stories of melancholy and absurdity, failure and out-of-the-box heroics. — Donna Seaman
Somerville has vast talent for invention and a flair for writing in a variety of voices, whether his character is a young female, a middle-aged male, or an alien. All in all in all, this is a remarkable and fun-to-read collection.
This is a book, ultimately, that requires its own navigation — or, to build on the title’s metaphor, its own instructions for assembly. On its own, it’s a deeply successful marriage of surreal structure and aching empathy. Taken together with the neatly ordered The Cradle, it marks Somerville as a writer with enviable range and honorable concerns.
Somerville is an author of extraordinary talents, and The Universe in Miniature in Miniature is that rare thing, a formally inventive and profound book of ideas that also manages to stir the emotions. Though the scale of each piece is small, it’s hard to imagine a writer of larger ambitions.
As is evident here, just beneath the level of comically self-devouring gimmickry is a righteous rage. The ideals of The Universe in Miniature in Miniature are far from farcical, no matter what far-out character, in what zany circumstances, might be voicing them. Indeed, one of Somerville’s points—along with the fact that all stories are, themselves, machines for understanding other people—is that sometimes the silliest action is also the most human.
With The Cradle, Patrick Somerville offers a novel about the many layers of the self—what is found and what is lost and found again. It’s a Midwestern story, with the cold, dank, wide open mystery of abandoned prairies at its hopeful heart.
Somerville reaffirms the idea of family in The Cradle, the loving and surprising story of new parents-to-be Marissa and Matthew Bishop, who have set up house in Milwaukee. Marissa is obsessed with finding an heirloom cradle her mother left with when she abandoned her years earlier. Matthew, sent off to track down the cradle, journeys through four states and begins to feel connected to Marissa’s family as well as his own story of neglect and abandonment in foster homes. His journey also connects him to a contemporary poet and children’s author whose son is about to ship out to the war in Iraq. Secrets surface, the two stories intersect, and their lives are forever changed.
It would be better to recommend “The Cradle,” a deeply gratifying modern fable, than to reveal too much about its plot. Leave it at this: Matt does find the cradle eventually, but he makes other discoveries that count for much more. In the course of his wanderings, Matt comes to grip with a malaise that has been with him since childhood. As a result, he is more profoundly ready for fatherhood than he would have been without this voyage of self-discovery.
One gets the sense that somewhere, near Patrick Somerville’s writing desk, hundreds of unpublished pages of his first novel, The Cradle, litter the floor. The scope of the story indicates that many hours of imaginative sweat went into the production of this lean, moving tale. Happily, The Cradle emerges swift and cinematic, an epic story told in a series of artfully curated, wonderfully rendered scenes.
The adult lost boy in Patrick Somerville’s marvelous debut, “The Cradle” starts out beholden to his pregnant wife’s obdurate demand that he retrieve a long-lost cradle. On this dubious premise Somerville builds a road narrative that gradually accumulates the mythic echoes and dreamlike inevitability of allegory. Matt’s search for the cradle takes on a picaresque nobility; he’s like a blue-collar Odysseus, crisscrossing the Midwest in his quest to return home to his Penelope. What gives “The Cradle” its potent emotional resonance, however, is the way Somerville’s prose calmly, relentlessly pulls at the Gothic skein of family tragedies that lurks behind the peeling paint and sagging porches, where a sense of inherited sin settles like a thick fog.
Somerville is a graceful but humble writer, in full possession of his gifts but seemingly free of the need to over-impress. He most likely is capable of imbedding lyric poetry in his paragraphs, but he seems confident enough to leave it at simple storytelling, letting us know that sometimes a woman on a park bench is all the poetry we need.
Somerville’s surprisingly tender novel retains the elegant economy and sense of mystery that distinguished the short stories in his 2006 collection, “Trouble.” The person standing at Renee’s door is not whom you might expect, and the letter handed to her voices fascinating ambivalence, not sentimental absolution. We don’t know everything that has occurred in the 11-year gap between the separate odysseys of mother and son; those details are as unnecessary as the cradle that Marissa wanted so much proved to be. What matters are Somerville’s characters, rendered with such warm appreciation of their complexity and resilience that, although he declines to predict their future, we have every reason to hope they will continue making slow, tentative progress toward healing the wounds of the past.
The book hitches itself to the vast loneliness of flat Midwestern spaces—Matt drives through them, Renee’s memories are grounded in them. Both lives are caught in the held breath before change, where life’s structure unstitches and allows for something new. The link between the characters, though easily guessed, is uncovered with a slow grace. But the story’s real centerpiece is Matt’s rapport with Joe. Their spare conversation is beautifully written, with lines of painstaking clarity. The weight of what Matt is doing—speaking, in a way, to his younger self—manages gravity while dodging self-seriousness, a particular gift in a debut novel.