Review by Emily Capettini
In Meg Pokrass’s flash fiction collection, The Dog Seated Next to Me, characters attempt to navigate marriages on the edge of coming apart, divorce, the coolness of distance, and the difficulty of reconciling who someone once was with who they are now. At the heart of this collection is transformation. Skillfully navigating multiple characters and timelines, Pokrass investigates the individuality of transformation and its consequences alongside surreal and humorous parts of these experiences.
The opening flash, “A Detached Kind of Imaginary Cruelty,” begins with a tangle of transformation and distance:
There is a flustered buffalo in a hotel bed, and it is a man, and it is a man who wants me so much he is levitating like an endangered animal. He is mastering the art of being made extinct. I am that kind of pony, here today, gone tomorrow, all fancy and prancing and cruel. (13)
The characters here imagine themselves impermanent and their relationship to one another becomes so, too. Both the man and narrator are on the edge of disappearing, one extinct, the other leaving. Though this situation is serious, it is also funny: a flustered buffalo and also a man, and also a man levitating like an endangered animal. The surreal labyrinth of this first line and its unusual image is an effective introduction to this collection. Flashes unspool with strangeness and humor, holding onto how the serious can be funny and uncanny.
The unsteadiness inherent in the relationship in this first flash changes into misunderstanding a few pages later in “Spider.” In “Spider,” the narrator asks the husband to take a spider out of their bathroom. The spider is six feet tall according to the narrator, but a “cute little dot” to the husband (15). Their at-odds perspectives become apparent at the same time the narrator notes how her husband’s legs “used to make [her] feel safe” (15). The past tense of this phrase is troubling, quietly changing a low-stakes difference in perception of the spider’s threat into a larger question of safety and understanding. At the end of the flash, the husband asks, “how would you feel if you were trapped in someone else’s life?” (15). What does it mean to be trapped in someone else’s life? How would you know if you were? In many ways, The Dog Seated Next to Me tries to answer this question through a kaleidoscope of perspectives, characters who know the ground is shifting under their feet but with no certain idea of how to hold it still.
As the collection continues, memory is central to characters and how they perceive their world. At the sentence-level, Pokrass skillfully weaves in phrases like “a taste in the air, someone cooking the memory of love” or “grief…was soft, droopy, wet. One could soak in a pond full of it” (18; 29). In flashes like “Uncle Shug’s,” the narrator wonders if she’s “dreaming this whole thing up” as she and her now-ex-husband sit in a familiar diner, in love “again” (21). Her ex-husband advises her “don’t smother it with too much thinking,” content for them to be “the way we were in the beginning” (21). However, the characters cannot remain anchored in memory, and this reflection on the past drives them to move forward. The narrator of “Mr. Shaky” remembers an unsuccessful date with a man who brought his pet rat. As she waits in line, “quiet as a rodent” and observing her newest date, she thinks about her online dating profile picture: “It…made me look thirty years younger, like a woman who had never been divorced and had not lost her mother. Like a woman who could love a rat” (26). In “Prescription,” the narrator says, “I’ve grown and cultivated men all my life—but this one will not thrive in my soil. It’s time to move on” (82). These self-reflections are quiet moments for characters, considering how they may have changed with different pasts, but these reflections are only curiosity.
In addition to grappling with their own sense of self, characters struggle with others’ perspectives of them. The narrator of “Blue Tongued Skink” has a partner who wants her to have a baby to give her purpose in life. In another example of Pokrass’s humor, the narrator speculates her partner “probably also wanted [her] to be more awake, not just lying in bed, as [she does] most days” (52). “Too late,” the narrator confides; “I had put my money down on an exotic lizard. A baby did not sound nearly as interesting” (52).
These characters move on in their own ways. Some find new love, another attempts to reconcile the contradictions of old lovers: the man who hated Bach and is now a composer and concert pianist or the man who hated dogs and is now a veterinarian. The characters in The Dog Seated Next to Me ultimately find their own ways forward, even when faced with partners who think they should go another way. “The dust of life settles,” one character tells us, “but not much else happens” (41).
As much as these flashes are united by themes and characters, so, too, are they self-contained. Each flash finishes its glance into a character’s life. Will we see these same characters again? Almost certainly, though Pokrass leaves it to readers to decide which flash is a continuation of another’s story. With multiple timelines that shift readers forward and back throughout the collection, The Dog Seated Next to Me confronts the often messy task of navigating life. This narrative structure of both united as well as standalone flashes allows readers to grapple with their own expectations of what one does after a marriage or relationship ends. What choices can or do we make and how can we reconcile ourselves and others with who we all become? Although we are invited into these stories, it is only for a single standalone moment—a flash, if you will—and then we turn the page and find ourselves stepping into another character’s world.
Emily Capettini is a queer fiction writer from the Midwest who loves a good ghost story. She is the author of Thistle (Omnidawn, 2015) and Girl Detectives (Porkbelly Press, forthcoming 2020) and Assistant Professor of English at Indiana State University. Her flash fiction can be found most recently in places such as The Spectacle, Passages North, and Dream Pop Journal, among others. In her free time, Emily practices Lindy Hop and aerial hoop. Find out more about her at emilycapettini.com.