Fiction

Wendy Wimmer, Entry Level (Autumn House), 188pp. Paperback, $17.95.

Working graveyard as a polysomnography technician at the sleep lab, she has the luxury of complimentary brain scans and she has seen proof that her parietal lobe is pristine and undamaged, a plum of an organ, so much better than, say, her liver.

This sentence, from her 2010 story “Intersomnolence,” captures a lot of what is strongest about Wendy Wimmer’s Entry Level, a collection of short fiction. The characters in these stories tend to work odd jobs: DJ at a roller-skating rink, part-time cashier at a bingo parlor, adjunct paleoanthropologist—or nightshift “polysomnography technician at the sleep lab.” Not the jet set, not the overachievers, but rather the struggling car salesman and “the fifth clarinet in marching band.”

The perks appreciated by Wimmer’s protagonists, such as “complimentary brain scans,” are also part of the appeal. The first story in the collection, “Strange Magic,” which is also the best, illustrates this nicely. The staff at a roller rink start skating between shifts when they discover that under the right conditions—doing laps counterclockwise, under a disco ball, while synth-heavy ’80s pop music plays—the aging process is ever-so-gradually halted and reversed, a few days per lap. Hair and fingernails stop growing. A woman with a mastectomy watches her breast suddenly return—along with the tumor. A blessing or a curse?

The stories in Entry Level are fundamentally fun to read.

And that attitude toward the body, both proud (one’s brain is “a plum of an organ”) and self-deprecating (the deteriorating liver). Wimmer’s characters are very aware of their defects and shortcomings—whether it’s poor memory, low self-esteem, or “years of drinking and pharmaceutical recreation.” The pain is usually mixed with humor; the author describes her own style as “scary/funny/sad.” Characters have problems, but they also have a good time.

Wimmer received a Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, but the center of gravity for the fifteen stories in Entry Level is in the Upper Midwest. (A Wisconsin native, Wimmer is also an alumna of the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay.) It’s often winter, or feels like it: “frozen pipes, tongues glued to flagpoles, and the ice fishermen on the bay, pulling a fish by its lip into a foreign, waterless nothing where its fins flex futilely against the air.” That’s a non-sibilant fricative fricassee (frozen, flagpoles, fishermen, fish, foreign, “fins flex futilely”), effecting a stammering shiver through the sentence.

The prose occasionally crystallizes into fine poetic images. A difficult drive through the country passes a field of sunflowers that “looked like a choir of children, bowing their heads.” Strangers on a train, exchanging glances every day on their morning commute, become trees in a forest: “Your leaves would whirl around my roots and I would creak and bat my limbs at you. We stood through centuries, always eighty yards apart, never able to intermingle our branches. I would blush each year that I lost my foliage and you would growl in a way that only trees can growl.”

Many of the stories tilt toward the weird. We see dream babies, ghost babies, conjoined twins fighting over a boyfriend. Several tales feature a hint of the supernatural, “some kind of insane magical event” that propels the action, often in the vein of George Saunders’s fiction. In “Strange Magic,” it’s the roller rink fountain of youth; in others, it’s a grantor of wishes, a reanimated bog mummy, or a chorus of oracular somniloquy.

Some tales here are quite short, only a few pages, but Wimmer is at her strongest when she gives her figures space to develop. Once the crux of the plot is established, the play of the writing becomes more entertaining; we get a greater sense of these characters’ desires—sometimes fulfilled but often thwarted. In the end, the stories in Entry Level are fundamentally fun to read, and the book is a promising debut for a gifted writer.