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BOOK REVIEW

Mining the magical and marvelous in ‘The Rock Eaters’

A new story collection mixes the real and the surreal

Illustration for review of "The Rock Eaters: Stories" by Brenda Paynado. 09RockEaters; BOOKS; 5-9-21
Illustration for review of "The Rock Eaters: Stories" by Brenda Paynado. 09RockEaters; BOOKS; 5-9-21raquel aparicio for The Boston Globe

Few debates over Latin American literatures devolve into persnickety hair-splitting more quickly than quarrels over the question of what constitutes magical realism. For my money, it’s influential Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier’s conception of lo real maravilloso (“the marvelous real”) that most succinctly clarifies the question: Latin America’s uniquely improbable history, politics, and cultures give rise to otherwise unexpected marvels that augment reality in ways that seem completely reasonable. By this standard, the 16 stories in “The Rock Eaters,” Dominican American author Brenda Peynado’s debut collection of fiction, fit the bill perfectly. The majority traffic in science fiction, fantasy, fabulism, or the surreal, even as they retain an edge of cutting satire or searing insight.

For all their genre-bending brilliance, Peynado’s shape-shifting stories prove most striking when they deal in the uncanny, that gray zone between the recognizable and the repulsive. The first story in the collection, “Thoughts and Prayers,” navigates this balance with unsettling effect. In a not-so-alternate reality, school shootings in the United States occur on a weekly basis. To protect their children, suburban families flock to their front yards to beat their breasts and chant, “Thoughts and prayers!” at giant, birdlike angels that perch on their roofs and defecate on their shingles, seemingly indifferent to their plight. Bands of self-righteous patriots careen across the country in bright red tour buses under the banner of Mothers for the Sanctity of the World. The Mothers seek to arm as many people as possible in the aftermath of each shooting and parade schoolchildren through the streets to taunt potential shooters, as if to say, “Go ahead and try it.” While obviously an exaggeration, Peynado’s pairing of an America completely inundated by gun violence with the impossible presence of avian guardian angels (that don’t actually protect anyone) produces a world that feels almost more real than our own, as if reality’s excesses have spilled over onto the page.

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The same can be said of “What We Lost,” an exceptionally short horror in which the inhabitants of an unnamed nation begin to lose their body parts: “A reporter discovered a trove of ears in a burlap sack, another found a church constructed of knee cartilage.” At a glance, the story’s an obvious play off Gogol’s “The Nose,” equally absurd, if wildly more disquieting. But Peynado delves openly into politics by situating the state as the likeliest purveyor of violence and, by story’s end, a coup starts to brew against an especially gruesome ruler: “Our leader has been known to wear us to state functions, our mouths strung in a necklace around his neck, our ears a laurel crown.” Set against the suggested backdrop of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo’s tyrannical rule — or really any of Latin America’s murderous autarchs — the story congeals into a horrifying firsthand account, a witness testimony that’s not entirely factual, but all the more impactful for the speculative liberties it takes.

Other stories land more softly, as is the case with the titular story, “The Rock Eaters,” in which first-generation emigrants from an island nation can float, unaided by airplanes, between countries. Upon returning to their home country with their own children in tow, the narrators grow eager to depart again: “we could feel the itch in the arches of our feet that propelled us to fly over borders.” But their kids grow enamored of the island, begin to fashion pebbled anklets and ingest rocks to weigh themselves against the inevitability of flight. Not every child is successful in their resistance, and some slip away into the sky, last seen “thousands of feet above the ground, grasping clumsily for each other, fingers stretching in terror through the thinnest of atmospheres.” Peynado captures the complicated, conflicting loyalties that mutate between generations in a way that heightens the sense of alienation and estrangement that comes with growing up as a child of immigrants. Again, the fantastic elements augment a very real scenario, one that plays out every day across Latin America.

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And then there’s “The Great Escape,” the perfect encapsulation of Peynado’s writerly prowess. The story centers around the narrator’s wealthy, aging tía Chani, who had previously been wedded to a nephew of Trujillo and who has begun a slow descent into Alzheimer’s. Tía Chani locks herself inside her grand apartment, for fear of thieves and swindlers, to protect the portraits, jewelry, sculpture, and other valuables that no doubt decorate its walls. Without giving anything away, the story’s conclusion arrives like a discarded key that fits perfectly into the story’s lock, at once completely unexpected and totally inevitable. The result is a story breathtaking in its seeming simplicity and astounding in its execution.

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It’s this magic, the ability to lead her readers into worlds that are structured very much like our own, yet still deliver surprising punches, that sets Peynado’s debut apart. This is true of her use of speculative storytelling elements, as well as her incorporation of issues of ethnicity, class, and nationality. In every instance, it’s essential that her characters are Dominican or Mexican or white. The characters’ migratory decisions, and histories, and outcomes are crucial to the telling. The fantastic and the surreal are never incidental to the stories’ worlds; they always accentuate what’s already there. In this, Peynado’s harnessing of the diasporic imagination establishes her as a true magician of the marvelous real.

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THE ROCK EATERS: Stories

By Brenda Peynado

Penguin, 288 pp., $16

Diego Báez is a writer, educator, and abolitionist based in Chicago.