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Arts & Life

'Daydreams Of Angels' Tells Stories Within Stories

In the opening story of Heather O'Neill's debut collection Daydreams of Angels, "The Gypsy and the Bear," a young boy starts to tell a story about a character he calls "The Gypsy" and his trained companion bear. But in the middle of his tale, the child is called away and never finishes. Created, but story-less, the two protagonists are on their own. The outline of their lives have been shaped by their narrator — rough, nameless, a mix of slur and physical stereotype — but they begin to forge a life for themselves beyond the slender space their maker meant for them to occupy.

Like "The Gypsy and the Bear," the stories in Daydreams of Angels are fabulist, often metafictional, and tend to wander beyond the boundaries of their alleged genre or origins to seek out entirely new and poignant territory. In "The Gospel According to Mary M.," a school-age girl befriends an unpopular classmate, a juice-to-wine altering weirdo named Jesus. In "Swan Lake for Beginners," a Soviet scientist clones an escaped dancer to help his country save face, resulting in generations of genetically-identical men who want nothing to do with dancing. A human boy raised by wolves becomes a reluctant celebrity upon his return in "The Wolf-Boy of Northern Quebec." A solider is saved from death by an ingenious toymaker and does not know what to with his newfound life in "Bartók for Children." And in the titular story, God must assign his lower-ranked angels to different jobs because his main soldiers have all been sent to Normandy — "What else could God do that day?" — and so a cherub out of his depth must befriend a wild, charismatic girl.

O'Neill's stories gleefully ransack Biblical narratives, fairy tales, history, oral storytelling, children's picture books, and any numbers of genres along with novels from H. G. Well's The Island of Dr. Moreau to the erotic masterpiece The Story of O. While the stories do not connect to each other, precisely — they're certainly not in the same universe, à la the linked collection or novel-in-stories — there are images that repeat and loop: Women crawling on all fours, wolves loping through city streets, Coca-Cola cans that can be used to admit visitors to amusement parks, birds and roses and thorns, angels and the complicated business of the afterlife.

Many of the stories often involve characters telling stories, and so the narrative becomes nested, and you might be liable to forget where the story started — not that it matters in the end.

Many of the stories often involve characters telling stories, and so the narrative becomes nested, and you might be liable to forget where the story started — not that it matters in the end. In this book, characters struggle against war, against poverty, against death, and it is narrative — the kind they hear, or the process of telling or taking control of their own story — that delivers them. Narrative as liberation or safe harbor is hardly a new theme in fiction, but I believe that writers return to it because it so closely aligns with their own experience. For writers, narrative can elevate, save, or destroy; writers understand the power story can wield.

In many ways, Daydreams of Angels invokes another recent and similarly accomplished collection: Diane Cook's Man V. Nature. Both Cook and O'Neill are alums of This American Life, and both reject mimetic fiction for work that straddles genre boundaries. But whereas Cook's stories are more absurdist and hilariously deadpan, O'Neill plays hers straight, and the plots are grounded with kindness and pain. Her prose is restrained but lovely, and her images crackle. "Grandfather used to say that when he was little, potatoes actually had tiny little eyes that would open up and look at you," she writes in "A Christmas Carol." "You could hear seashells laughing and talking to one another on the seashore. When you were at the beach, it sounded like you were in the audience at a circus when the lights went off and the show was about to begin." And there is possibly no better metaphor for this collection's collective voice: A murmuring, jubilant chorus both anxious to speak and ready to listen.

Carmen Maria Machado has written for The New Yorker, The Paris Review and AGNI, among other publications.

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