Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits and Other Curious Things
Trade Paper, 200 pages, $11.99
Review by Sheila M. Merritt
Reading Cate Gardner’s short stories is like watching The Twilight Zone hosted by Franz Kafka, with adaptations by Lewis Carroll. This isn’t run of the mill writing. In the collection Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits and Other Curious Things, Gardner’s highly unusual fiction is displayed in all its bizarre glory. Calling her work odd is an understatement; it doesn’t do justice to her great imagination.
Like the aforementioned Lewis Carroll, Gardner likes to ponder what’s on the other side of the looking glass. In “Cold Coffee Cups & Curious Things,” the author does a riff on the Alice in Wonderland universe; in a hospital setting. That environment is both commonplace and surreal, which makes for an ideal sense of the banal co-existing with the absurd. Alice, the aptly named protagonist of the piece, is trapped by her surroundings; but hers is a philosophical paranoia. “There are two types of curious things: those who look in and those who look out. Sometimes they are the same and sometimes they are different.” The use of the word “curious” in the quote is notable for its double meaning. It can be perceived as being desirous of knowledge, or as something peculiar. Both definitions are applicable in the context of the tale.
Hat tips go not only to the world of The Mad Hatter, but also to the The Brothers Grimm, and Peter Pan’s flights of fantasy. In “The Scratch of an Old Record,” a female who doesn’t want to grow up finds that such avoidance is complicated. As with most of the narratives included in this volume, there are multiple ways of interpreting the gist of the story. “Frog and the Mail Order Bride” is a fractured fairy tale, padded with puns and amphibious allegory: “When your name is Frog, your eyebrows meet in the middle, your body odour is not the sweetest, and everyone you meet is a princess in the meanest sense of the word, then you have issues with the whole transformation with one kiss thing.”
Loss of power and subjugation are themes of several of the 24 works in the collection. In “The Forest of Discarded Hearts,” for example, there is a Shirley Jackson-like sentiment: “On a Tuesday morning in October, Ruby Ash discovered it is possible to disappear overnight; that all it takes is someone willing to wish you away.”
Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits and Other Curious Things is wonderfully weird. Cate Gardner embraces the unconventional and unexpected. And clearly comprehends the answer to the rhetorical question she asks in one of her stories: “Why open a door when you are afraid of what stands beyond it?”