Have you ever read a short story that could be a book? The hook in the first line is compelling, immediately drawing you in. The characters are fleshed out and well-written within their limited storylines. The plot is unexpected and keeps you guessing, unsure how it could wrap up in the few remaining pages. It’s so finely done that it could go on for a couple hundred more pages, and you would still be satisfied.
That is how every story left me in Ryan Vance’s debut collection, One Man’s Trash.
The uncanny defines these short stories. Each story provides a gripping, disconcerting narrative. From a teenager with an innate power that makes everyone hand all of their belongings over to him, to a seemingly post-apocalyptic world where housemates have to supply a large hermit crab with cowry shells as rent, this collection has a compendium of fantastical short stories that are unsettling and incredibly queer.
Vance has the ability to write about the “odd” in a manner that is simultaneously unnerving, mystifying, and immersive. Generally, short stories do not give a lot of time for the reader to become adjusted to the world of the tale. With fantastical realms, such as Vance’s, this is all the more difficult. Yet, in One Man’s Trash, you cannot help but become immersed in the outlandish domain the author has created.
Take “When All We’ve Lost is Found Again,” where Rob, the story’s neurotic protagonist, copes with recently being ghosted by his longtime boyfriend by obsessing over a newly discovered area in space, where lost items mysteriously turn up. Rob’s infatuation with what has been labeled “Lost Space” slowly takes his boyfriend’s place within his life. As Rob’s boyfriend increasingly distances himself from their relationship, Rob spends more time cataloging the random items floating in space. This is until Rob stumbles upon a cephalopod creature that seems to have slightly moved every time he looks at it. By the end of the story, Rob has let all of his material items go. He leaves them outside his house to either end up in someone else’s home, or in Lost Space, handed over to the cephalopod.
Throughout the story, Vance maintains an eerie yet conversational tone. Rob’s passiveness about everything occurring in his life leads you to just accept it, despite the abnormalities. It is easy to understand how Rob can be so utterly fascinated by the cephalopod because you, as the reader, are itching to know more about it; the reader’s experience parallels Rob’s in this way. Stuck at the same level of comprehension as Rob and learning about Lost Space at the same pace as him, you’re limited to a certain level of understanding. The reader is being kept at a distance from total insight, heightening the disturbing presence of the cephalopod, and rationalizing Rob’s infatuation.
In “Dead Skin” the protagonist, Bruce, keeps the reader at a distance and incapable of knowing every detail. After a complete body transplant in which his head was connected to a new body, Bruce is prohibited from sharing any information regarding the surgery, and thus closes himself off to all people, including the reader, who is treated with the same apprehensiveness. Naturally, Bruce is not comfortable in this new body. Everyone knows who he is, being labeled “The Modern Frankenstein” at the center of documentaries and clickbait articles. Bruce essentially lives his life in isolation, refusing to allow anyone to get close to him. He even works as a bouncer for an LGBT nightclub, literally standing guard in all aspects of his life. Bruce wants to be alone until he meets Gale (using ne/nir/nem pronouns) at the gym.
Gale is an awkward stagehand at a local theater. Ne celebrates nir year anniversary on T and dons costumes from the theater for a date with Bruce. Gale does not understand Bruce’s reluctance to share himself, and Bruce thinks ne is only observing him like “a specimen,” because that’s what everyone else does. Still, Bruce slowly opens himself up to Gale by showing Gale track marks from his procedure and even attempting to dance with nir. When Bruce claims he was “‘not made for dancing,’” Gale comforts him, saying that “‘nobody’s made for anything,’” reminding Bruce of his humanity despite how unnatural he feels.
The nature of humanity is reflected in Vance’s stories. In many of the stories, humans are capable of persevering, despite being physically altered, or living in a world that has changed drastically. We learn Bruce had the transplant procedure performed as a solution to some unspoken terminal illness. Despite the public eye treating Bruce as nothing more than a bizarre experiment, Bruce continues to live his life, albeit a lonely one. Even before Gale, Bruce recognizes he was not ready to die, and if the price to continue living was to have the surgery, he was ready to pay it. Bruce’s nature to persevere and live is relatable and undeniably human, no matter how unusual his situation is.
If you are a fan of the weird fiction genre (think Octavia Butler, Neil Gaiman, or Stephen King), One Man’s Trash is for you. Vance’s debut is a dynamic piece of speculative fiction that artfully jumps from science fiction, telling a tale in which all straight people inexplicably die, to fantasy, with a story in which a Minotaur living in present-day sells ice cream to kids at a skatepark, and even a horror story about a man who creates a rat king out of vengeance. Do not let these peculiar plots scare you away. Underneath the uncanny, Vance’s true understanding of humanity is revealed, through strange situations that ultimately make each story within One Man’s Trash addicting and compelling.