A misreading of the review copy's cover led me to believe the title of local author Peter Rock's newest collection was "The Unsettling Stories." It's not very far off for this bunch of odd, thought-provoking shorts. With eccentric characters caught in unlikely events, The Unsettling (MacAdam Cage, 300 pages, $21) explores the unexpected connections and empty spaces between people, and the enormous capacity for weirdness in the everyday world.
With clean, orderly prose and an ominous, almost spooky tone, Rock lays out cliché settings—a young couple on a camping trip, women walking alone at night—that lead you to constantly brace yourself for something horrible to happen. But Rock's work recalls that of French novelist Patrick Modiano in creating familiar, suspenseful scenes that never deliver the anticipated thrilling conclusion. The action is often vague, confusing or nonexistent. The climaxes in The Unsettling are less sinister and dramatic than you'd expect—more internal, subtle and just plain bizarre. Few of the stories lead to any revealing culmination of facts. The final and longest, "Disentangling," is an exception, as it reveals, deliciously, the identity of a mysterious man and what happened to a dead dog—questions not atypical in Rock's stories.
The women and men who populate his tales are equally unexpected, like the title characters of "The Silent Men," who dine regularly at an expensive restaurant but neither speak nor eat their food. But sometimes Rock tries too hard to be quirky, as with the protagonist of "Signal Mirror," a barefoot pill-popper who feeds tortoises in the Nevada desert. And at times the voices of supposedly gritty, streetwise characters sound suspiciously like that of a fiction writer who teaches at Reed College.
Although originally from Salt Lake City, Rock currently lives here in Portland and fills his stories with familiar local elements, from Oaks Park and basement shows to pompous college students. Not only is it easier to imagine the scene taking place when you've been there, but it's fascinating to see how the city's environment works its way into someone else's subconscious.
Sometimes the themes at play here—loneliness and connections, coincidence and control, social transgression—are readable and close to the surface; sometimes you're left wondering, "Wait, what happened?" As a group, the stories imbue a sense of curiosity and possibility, and the idea that the world is a lot more twisted and unpredictable than you might think. But not necessarily in a bad way.