Monday, December 15, 2014

book review: When Mystical Creatures Attack! by Kathleen Founds

The backstory: When Mystical Creatures Attack! won the Iowa Short Fiction Award and is 2014 New York Times Notable book.

The basics:  "Told through high school class assignments, letters, emails, private journal entries, school literary magazine submissions, advice column blog posts, and psychiatric wellness reports, the 25 linked stories in this debut collection beautifully sketch the lives of residents of a small South Texas town."-Publishers Weekly

My thoughts: First: whoever called this book a short story collection has a very, very narrow view of what a novel is. To me, linked stories may share characters and settings, either across some stories or all. When Mystical Creatures Attack! has three main characters, and one of each is the main character in each story (I would say chapter.) It's certainly not a traditional novel, as the description indicates. It doesn't unfold in a chronological narrative. But, to me, it's definitely a novel, even if many of its chapters could be enjoyed individually. It's power lays in its completeness. (Note: Founds has referred to it as a novel in stories. That works for me.)

Semantics of form aside, let me tell how amazing and original When Mystical Creatures Attack! is. It's a deeply emotional and intellectual exploration of life. It's also silly and preposterous. The title (and first chapter) refer to an exercise in a high school creative writing class:
1. What is your favorite mystical creature?
2. What is the greatest sociopolitical problem of our time?
Journaling prompt: Write a one-page story in which your favorite mystical creature resolves the greatest sociopolitical problem of our time.
The results are terrible. And I loved them. The creatures are not always mystical. The sociopolitical problems are far from the greatest of our time, but the end result so tragically and beautifully encapsulates teenagers in a compulsory creative writing class. I marveled at Founds' ability to be both silly and wise. As I reader I enjoyed this chapter as both entertainment and as the start of something deeper.

Founds continues to play with form throughout this novel. There are some straight-forward sections written in traditional narrative prose, and many of them are the more serious and deeply emotional pieces. There are also creative formats that bring both much-needed levity, but also work to enhance the narrative and expand the cast of characters in compelling ways.

Favorite passage:  "Ask yourself if, in your longing for clarity and order, you have negated contradiction and paradox."

The verdict: When Mystical Creatures Attack! is one of the highlights of my year in reading. Its description made it sound gimmicky but enjoyable. Instead I discovered a fresh new voice bold enough to experiment with form and narrative, but refined enough to not lose sight of character development and the emotional and moral center of fiction.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 162 pages
Publication date: October 1, 2014
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy When Mystical Creatures Attack! from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Kathleen Founds' website, like When Mystical Creatures Attack! on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter

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1 comment:

Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!