The nature of love is questioned at a golf course, a flower shop, an all-you-can-eat buffet. The clay head of a man is bought and displayed as a trophy. Interior life manifests on the physical plane, where characters―human and animal―eat and breathe, provoke and injure one another.
... deeply enjoyable ... Sometimes the stories work within the territory of the horror genre – they are atmospheric with fear and shock, threat and disorientation – but without the generic appurtenances of the supernatural ... Almost all the stories are told in the first person, but some give the unnerving impression of having come out of a non-human consciousness ... The pieces are set in unidentified places that seem very much like the US – the rural midwest or the suburbs of the great cities. Yet the settings feel fresh because the author refuses to draw on worn-out descriptive tropes ... This is not realism, but there is no dream fog about these stories. There is no kitsch, no irony, no postmodern nods and winks, no sentiment either. Through the power of her vision, Scanlan takes hold of the world and gives it to the reader with an intensity that is, paradoxically, both strange and familiar ... The stories are not flashes of fiction or experiments but carefully made works, executed with powerful economy. Scanlan pays minute attention to objects and persons, to construct stories that are exactly as long as they need to be. The emotional power is achieved, at points, partly through an ambiguous narration of events, which may frustrate readers who prefer their stories to lie flat. Conventions of dialogue, action and closure are eschewed, not as a provocation, but because this is the most engaging and convincing way the writer has found to reach this far into what it is to be human ... Scanlan requires that the reader remain sharply vigilant: a feeling that lingers long after finishing the book and will, perhaps, be part of what draws people back. On rereadings I found the stories to be both more beautiful on the surface, with finely made sentences that are sonically and rhythmically compelling, and more profoundly affecting at a deeper level of feeling. More evident still becomes Scanlan’s skill in exploring big human themes: grief, abjection, neglect, fragility ... a great source of pleasure.
Lean and mean – whittled down to their very viscera – the 40 stories assembled in The Dominant Animal are certainly close to the bone ... Scanlan seems to proceed not by addition but subtraction, like a sculptor chipping away at a slab of marble ... Scanlan’s fiction never strays far from this point of origin that always threatens to reclaim it, as in this mystifying coup de théâtre ... The young American author’s audacious deployment of lacunae is a measure of her singular artistry ... The author’s focus on this scattered self and life stripped back to its essence does not result in a defamiliarisation of the world but, on the contrary, in its refamiliarisation – as though we were emerging from a coma. It also lends these tales a timeless quality, enhanced by a style that tends to the irrefutable. These are sentences written in stone – to be read out loud or learned by heart.
Scanlan’s stories are the opposite of traditional, New Yorker–style fiction. She favors situations rather than plots, and is fond of first-person narrators who withhold interiority. There’s scant character development, and no grand epiphanies. Her pieces don’t end so much as stop in their tracks, leaving the reader with the muddled buzz of bad weed. They’re also compact—the longest runs about six pages. The acoustics of language are central ... her work offers its own canted mix of eroticism and absurdism, its own gnarled comedy of gender and class ... At their best, her stories make other writers’ work seem fatty and uptight ... The party line of most realist fiction is specificity, not uncertainty. Scanlan, however, is an artist of omission ... These lacunae and non sequiturs are thrilling in some stories. In others, Scanlan underplays her hand ... For all the variety of their predicaments, Scanlan’s narrators also speak with the same measured neuroticism. The book sometimes feels like a single, visceral monologue, albeit one you’re happy to prolong ... To her credit, Scanlan treats the reader like a collaborator capable of keeping pace with sudden reroutes ... Scanlan’s stories tell you almost nothing—which, in these cacophonous times, is the mark of a true radical.