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.