KR Reviews

On Machines of Another Era by Bess Winter

Boston, MA: Gold Wake Press, 2021. 170 pages. $16.95.

Whether through Wikipedia rabbit holes, bibliomancy, or—most likely—somebody posting an anecdote on social media, a common source of literary inspiration these days seems to be authors finding out some weird factoid from history or current events. The Confederacy had a submarine; dogs have learned to ride public transportation in Russia; you’ve heard of tulip fever, but how about fern fever? They allow the anecdote to grow a short story or novel around it. The attraction of this approach is that the oddity brings with it a surrogate fascination; this is also the potential downside of the approach. There’s the danger that the writer might consciously or unconsciously feel the alleviation of a certain pressure—that of making the plot, characterization, everything aside from the anecdote compelling. The artificiality of how the anecdote arrived with the author and its distance from the author’s lived experience could register in the texture of its treatment.

How many stories are currently being written about the mysterious metallic monolith just discovered in a canyon in rural Utah?

Certain stories in Bess Winter’s debut collection, Machines of Another Era, might have sprung from this phenomenon: French soldiers held captive by the British make model ships of human bones; the city of Toronto granting a hefty prize to the child who kills the most flies; Civil War-era residents munching on the product of the Ganja Wallah Hasheesh Candy Company.

The most successful stories are the ones that allow such antique or localized strangenesses to touch and speak to the contemporary moment in a direct way, giving the far-flung subject matter a reactant that serves to bring those stories and the whole collection into startling volatility.

Such is the case with “Talking Dolls” and “The Stories You Write About Mimico,” which serve as a representation of what the collection is ultimately accomplishing as a whole. Both stories feature a palindromic structure that moves toward the now before retreating back to the temporality in which they started. “Talking Dolls” begins in quirky anecdote territory: 1889, the production of the nightmarish Edison’s Phonograph Doll and the lives of the underpaid girls tasked with recording nursery rhymes, songs, and the like on tin cylinders housed inside the dolls. We learn about the difficulties of the life of our protagonist, Emily, and the friendship she strikes up with a protective but covetous coworker, Sarah, who warns her about the foreman’s similar affections for a bygone girl. In the next vignette, the story jumps two months into the future and way up the socioeconomic ladder, to a family who has bought one of these dolls and quickly regrets the purchase. No narrative in sight in the third section, just the documentation of the contents of Edison’s personal assistant’s desk, which includes a “Tin Phonograph Cylinder.” Then it’s 2014, Silicon Valley, and a scientist named Carl receives the cylinder and succeeds in resurrecting one of the oldest recordings of a female voice in existence. We know just enough about Carl’s life and his way of looking at the world to both care about him and to see his life’s ultimate consequentiality shrunken by the story’s dizzying scope. Somehow, Winter has pulled off a demonstration that 1889 is both another era and not so long ago. It is stories like this one that dissolve the layers of technological and ideological mediation, tricking us into forgetting how relatively recent what we’ve come to call human culture really is. We end in 1890, the faulty dolls gutted of their machinery in a frenzy that calls to mind what a foreman might make a factory girl do if she began to show—even as Emily allows the boss to take her arm, and the other girls, like Sarah, who lent their voices to a failed product are tossed out with the dolls.

“The Stories You Write About Mimico” is even better, perhaps because its urgency is evinced by the reveal of its connection to the author’s life, and because—by throwing into flux the entry’s genre distinction—this final story gives a new light to the whole collection. We’re accustomed to calling the main character even in nonfiction “the speaker” to allow for distance between the author and the diegetic voice, but “Mimico” intensifies this parallel presence of narrator and author by having the speaker speak to the author herself, addressing her as Bess, the “you” of the title. It’s unclear at first why “Mimico” calls for this approach. We get a story of Oscar Peterson returning from a tour to find the piano in his penthouse out of tune, a second story of a Mr. Franceschini giving a horse beloved by his daughter to an emissary from Benito Mussolini, a third story of a refugee artist named Andor Weininger who is stuck in an uncaring Toronto while his other Bauhaus friends find wild success in New York City. The fourth section begins, “This is you, Bess, hauling the first boxes into the elevator of your new building in Amadeo Court.” We are supposed to read this core of the story as nonfiction—and perhaps as an explanation as to what draws Winter to write about people and places removed by time. Alongside descriptions of tough living in this neighborhood and of hearing rumors about its residents during more prosperous days (Peterson, Franceschini, Weininger), Bess begins writing what she describes as unsuccessful stories: “Your protagonist—a thinly-veiled version of you—contemplates life for a while, the unfairness of it, has a long walk, gets home, is tired, lies down and lets the difficulty of it all just buzz through her body. There is no change. You don’t know how to make change happen.” This story, on the other hand, knows how: put lives side-by-side like apartment buildings do, like a wide enough view of history might. Complicating the simple palindromic movement back through Weininger and Franceschini to O.P. is that Peterson’s jazz piano floats through and braids together all the final sections, a merging of the literary definition of motif and the musical one, eliciting an impossible sense of page-based simultaneity—not just of the then, but making of the then just one of an endless stream of nows.

Because “Talking Dolls,” “Mimico,”—and another excellent, utterly contemporary story, “Are You Running Away?”—are all in the second half of Machines, the collection risks being front-loaded with stories that, while exploring compelling narratives and characters whose lives and whose concerns will feel familiar to readers, too consistently draw not just their subject matter but their aesthetics from another era—specifically, an era before modernism. That stories like “A Beautiful Song, Very Melancholy and Very Old” and “A General Confusion Overtook the Whole Vicinity” serve as entry points to the collection and feel more sealed off in the past exacerbates a sense of randomness at the beginning of Machines which, in turn, makes these stories feel more dependent upon their historical oddity.

At times, I felt like Carl from “Talking Dolls”: “Old technology, thought Carl, was the culprit. The scratchy record, the telegraph message, the tintype—anything we don’t know how to use anymore—was a barrier to feeling.” On the very next page, however, he finds himself captivated by the resurrection of Emily’s voice over the gulf of a century. My interest in historical cabinets of curiosities is of one kind, but I felt something entirely more active and less quaint when I visited an exhibition in 2019 at the Milwaukee Art Museum called the Collaboratory, which curated a view of history wide enough to include the present moment. The accomplishments of Machines of Another Era are best understood in the second half of the book when it shows us where we’re standing. It is then that the chaos of associations available via the juxtaposition of disparate elements comes into focus: daguerreotypes and gorilla sign language; mailed babies and misguided high school productions of The Mikado; garnet caves and the last wild passenger pigeon.