This is the trick of Diane Cook’s stories: against high-concept dystopias that belong in the realm of SF or fairytale or parable – the last two houses standing in a world of rising sea levels; a man blessed and cursed with the power to impregnate any woman; a society that incinerates a certain number of 'not-needed boys' – they amplify the emotional states and subconscious forces that drive everyday life, such as grief, shame, desire and need. There is a tinge of George Saunders in the way she treads the margins between the hyperreal and the surreal, but the stories have an imaginative dexterity all their own ... The deadpan violence that saturates the collection powers Cook’s project of emotional bloodletting through physical extremes ... it suggests that Cook’s oddball voice could yet describe the world we already know with the same dazzling ingenuity she shows here.
At their worst, these stories can be either deeply moralizing (Left Behind, I’m looking at you) or just pure destruction porn, an outlet for our deepest anxieties about global warming or the human tendency toward war. This isn’t to say that these sorts of books aren’t often insightful, brilliant or at the very least entertaining, but they tend to fare better when they focus on how we survive after the dust settles than the oblivion itself ... Man V. Nature passes up the stock set pieces and gnaws on that thematic bone. The world doesn’t end so much as people’s worlds end — their senses of safety, their long-held narratives, their relationships and ideals ... Cook creates a surreal but painfully honest world. She’s not trying to create a possible dystopia; instead she dramatizes the private catastrophe of losing love and the impossibility of escaping memory, despite what others insists ... Cook is a pro at using the bizarre, sometimes even fable-like set ups to upend our most essential fears ... When Cook does venture into a more traditional apocalyptic setting she does so with Barthelme-level absurdity.
We’re constantly fighting a battle against a force larger than we are, and we’re probably going to lose ... That may sound like a pessimistic summation of these lively, apocalypse-tinged tales, but Cook mines the moments that precede the losses — when the battles are truly raging — and it’s in them that she finds great beauty and strangeness ... Cook traffics in absurd situations — a man who can have sex 50 times a day is set upon by a legion of childless women and made a sex slave; a woman with great luck is besieged by a village of the less lucky — but she does so to dramatize her very realistic concerns. We’re not part of a system of infinite resources. We’re not immortal. No clear paths exist to our desired destination, if we even know what that is. The paths may be dark, but they’re strewn with meaning. And in the end, this collection suggests, meaning might be worth the battle.
Each of the twelve stories is unlike any I have read before: masterfully constructed, deftly written, and strange in only the ways that count ... Cook is committed to the uncanny. The worlds of her stories are like our own but unnerving and different, somehow menacing. The strength of each story’s conceit lies in the author’s awareness of our deepest fears and, therefore, desires—the possibilities that frighten and electrify and consume and terrorize and animate us all at once. In that way, Cook has written a collection of ambivalence: Man V. Nature oscillates rapidly between divergent poles of familiarity and strangeness, likeness and difference, comfort and horror, love and hatred. Her stories live in the twilit nether of the neither/nor ... Through it all, a basso continuo rumbles the domestic scaffold around which each tale wraps itself. The tension between social structure and primal desire seems to always approach a breaking point, a level of unsustainability that might explode the book’s binding and singe the hair on the backs of the reader’s fingers ... Cook’s fiction is moving in a way that testifies to her deep familiarity with the human experience.
Real fears are given a surreal makeover in this collection, with 12 stories that range from absurd to dystopian to postapocalyptic ... A central theme of Man V Nature danger is reflected in Cook’s inventive style ... For all its grim predicaments, these are stories about shelter and surviving. Life is the fight, Cook seems to be saying, and how we tackle it ultimately defines us.
One story after another, this author puts forth idiosyncratic and twisted conceits, but manages to deliver the narrative goods when it comes to depicting the tragic, emotional lives of her characters ... Cook is interested in exploring a subversive breed of narrative, more in the absurdist vernacular of George Saunders, Chris Adrian and Aimee Bender ... With a handful of these stories, Cook takes the subject of sex and all of its physical glory — irrational obsession, unbridled desire and teenage sex. Not all of these stories succeed in their boldness, but one, 'Meteorologist Dave Santana,' strikes a balance with its dark humor and palpable sorrow ... Many of Cook’s stories could come off as empty technical exercises, but instead read like complete miniature portraits of human failings and losses. Like the best kind of fiction, the reader is left with much to think about within the broad realms of sex, death, love and friendship.
Quirkiness abounds, with several fairy-tale tropes thrown in for good measure ('A Wanted Man,' concerning a lothario known for impregnating neighborhood women, even begins, 'There once was a man...'). Some stories jump off the page, others falter, yet all are oddly charming.
...mercilessly in-your-face stories ... The strongest, relatively most realistic and hopeful story, 'Meteorologist Dave Santana,' follows a sexually predatory woman who stalks her neighbor for years while lying to herself that all she cares about is the chase ... Cook’s sharply honed prose packs an intellectual yet disturbing wallop. Be forewarned: Reading too many of these stories in one sitting may cause suicidal thoughts.