Lucy Ives has a mind well-suited to short-story writing, though her recent collection, Cosmogony, is her first. She combines an experimental spirit with roving curiosity, which perhaps explains why her prior body of work is so wide-ranging: In the past 12 years, she's published two novels, several books of poetry, and a significant quantity of art criticism. All, I am pleased to report, are good. So is Cosmogony. Ives — this is a compliment — is a real literary weirdo, and her stories are strange without ever performing their strangeness. Their plots and mechanisms can be baffling, and yet each one is emotionally precise in the extreme. Often, I was moved without knowing what had moved me — a rare feeling in art as in life, and an absolute treat.
Ives's stories may be puzzling, but they aren't opaque. Many writers interested in weirdness overload their stories with tangled sentences or thesaurus words; she's not into that. Line to line, Cosmogony is snappy, voice-driven, and immensely inviting. One story, "Scary Sites," is a dialogue between friends, stripped of any descriptive prose. All the others — with the exception of "Guy," which is the collection's only miss — feel nearly as conversational. "The Poisoners," a crookedly sweet account of an adulterous affair gone right, gave me the vicarious thrill of a good gossip session. Reading "A Throw of the Dice" and "Cosmogony," which are two of the collection's strongest stories, was like listening to a friend lament her mistakes. This fictional relatability is an achievement in "A Throw of the Dice," whose unnamed protagonist is a recent college graduate struggling to set up a life in the Bay Area. In "Cosmogony," it's downright exceptional, given that the story opens with the narrator's best friend getting engaged to a blue-legged, yellow-eyed demon.
As happens often, Cosmogony's title story is its best. I found it nearly perfect. It is at once a philosophical argument — Enlightenment secularism: Good or bad? — and a cosmic reframing of the female-friendship tug-of-wars dramatized in books like My Brilliant Friend or Conversations with Friends. In "Cosmogony," as in the others, the issue at hand is worldview. The narrator's friend is marrying a demon; the narrator herself, perhaps in retaliation, begins dating an "actual angel." Predictably, this creates troubles between the two women. It also disturbs the narrator's belief that she lives in a post-Enlightenment "secular zone. Sure, there might be devils and angels and true believers, but what did that really matter, now that we had the news?" That question — how much does the cosmic matter? — animates the rest of the story, and of the collection. Over and over, Ives asks the reader, in sly and extremely funny ways, to trouble their "Enlightenment-inheriting" belief that humans are at the center of existence, or even know, at any given time, what's going on.
Some of her narrators at first seem befuddled simply by themselves or their social worlds. The friends in "Scary Sites" are parsing art-world dating after #MeToo; Christine, the narrator of "Recognition of This World is Not the Invention of It," is attempting to work out whether she wants to continue in her marriage, or her life. Always, though, a philosophical question lurks beneath Ives's stories' surfaces. Both Christine and the friends in "Scary Sites" are confronting the fundamental, immoral fact that, as Christine puts it, "[t]he way things work is, everything is possible and everything is permitted." If that's true, how is a person in a secular world supposed to know how to act?
Other stories trouble human existence without fretting over secularity. In "Louise Nevelson," the narrator, grumbling over "how thoroughly my life has been defined by my female status," declares defiantly, "I am one of the animals. I live among the other human animals and am one of them. Nothing animal is outlandish to me" — a assertion she seems to hope will, somehow, help her escape the infinite expectations placed on women. (Spoiler: it does not.) In "Bitter Tennis," the narrator leads a regular New York life while claiming to live on the bottom of the ocean, "among the bristlemouths, the viperfish, the anglerfish, the cookiecutter sharks, the eelpouts." To what extent, the story asks, is her life a full human one? Can you lead a complete human existence while thinking of yourself partly as an animal?
Ives gives more answers than short-story writers tend to. She's done with the Enlightenment; she rolls her narratorial eyes at the inching progress of "women's liberation, so called;" she sees in the animal kingdom a set of role models for worrying less over the fact that everything is possible, and working to live more simply, even as human complication hovers infinitely at the edges. Her conclusions are deft and persuasive; she frames them less as revelations, which would be the standard short-fiction choice, than as primal knowledge unearthed by bizarre circumstance. I'd move to her weird cosmos any day.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.