Interior Design by Philip Graham, 160 pages; hard cover; $20.00.
In "Another Planet," the first of Philip Graham's eight stories, a boy named Sammy imagines tennis balls as tiny planets, drawing landscapes on them and creating their inhabitants. This "writing" of different and better worlds, where different and better families make their homes, helps Sammy escape the existing world of his parents' anxieties over money and over his father's ironic retreat into his own world. Sammy's work reflects Graham's, whose offbeat stories are imaginary and fanciful worlds, in which characters invent still more worlds. They resemble startling "Twilight Zone" episodes because they simultaneously tilt away from and comment on reality.
Who lives in these tennis ball worlds? People you might see anywhere: a shoe salesman, a geologist, a dental hygienist, an aspiring actor, an artist, an interior decorator, graduate students, and a worker who lost a couple fingers to a machine. These, as Mister Rogers says, are the people in your neighborhood. But something's up with them. Just as the land they inhabit is a little odd, so are they. Sammy's father, the shoe salesman, for example, loves his shoe store more than anything. He has rigged up a machine in his basement that scuffs a shoe on sandpaper the consistency of cement to see how much mileage each shoe can take before it wears out. When his shoe store goes out of business, he goes mad and begins imagining he's still selling shoes, and that his kids are his customers.
The aspiring actor in "The Reverse," is cast as a housewife in a series of conceptual commercials but finds the reason she's been hired is the reverse of what she had assumed. In fact, nearly everything in this story is in reverse: a director wears her clothes inside out; the actor dreams she is naked on a beach, her modesty saved by a reverse tan; and context becomes absolutely unimportant in an acting job.
The pair of married graduate students in "Beauty Marks" has just returned from an anthropological research trip to Africa. The two of them, Martin and Barbara, are beginning their dissertations. But they are having trouble with this as each has been emotionally marked by the gender divisions and rituals that characterized the village they studied. Martin has broken taboo to obtain secret maps of the farming landscape (that a tribe member wasted away and died because of Martin's indiscretion is backgrounded in the story), while Barbara has attempted to find meaning in the women's tattoo rituals. Trying to make sense of these cultural and gender differences causes them to keep secrets from one another, to work separately with their own puzzles. Since men's and women's ways of knowing the world eventually mirror each other, Graham seems to be suggesting that the two ways are complementary.
And this would be nice to believe. But the cards are definitely stacked: Graham's' clumsy and disturbing use of the female point of view makes four and a half stories out of eight read like somebody's mean brother is writing about life inside Barbie's camper. For example, look at this line: "That night Isabel lies in the darkness and tries to hold her eyelids open with her fingers, afraid she might dream another terrible dream of a vanishing baby." Or this: "Linda pressed on the accelerator, entranced by the transforming view of her windshield. Then a truck appeared, but Linda immediately realized it couldn't be that at all. Instead, it was a road cut, and its sheer, towering slabs still frightened her. . . ." Gol. In "Geology," the dental hygienist, this same Linda, freaks out because she thinks her toddler has become her husband and she can't understand why he's not speaking to her. Graham's male characters aren't particularly dignified either, but some of his female characters are stereotypically wacky (yawn). So, defeating Graham's intent to show the imaginary as more real than real, they end up like Linda in her car, having little control over the imaginary worlds they create.
Graham's stories are a compelling enough read. However, when I finished them, I felt particularly despairing. Graham is Sammy, the boy who draws on tennis balls, but he is also the brother who has a good laugh and ticks off his sister with what he can do to Barbie.