What if books were categorized in a similar manner to movies? If they were grouped not by whether they are fiction or nonfiction, but more in line with the emotions they stir in us? In what section would Maegan Poland’s What Makes You Think You’re Awake? be shelved? Do the stories in this debut provoke happiness or sadness, fear or regret? Are they funny? Can you learn from them?
Released in June, What Makes You Think You’re Awake? is a collection of 10 short stories that share more similarities than differences: third-person omniscient point of view; characters who toil in education; trauma and strained relationships; minor tension that slowly rises; and ambiguous endings. The stories offer rare and incisive insight into human nature, particularly as it pertains to relationships. They’re rich in detail and well-written. They’re thought-provoking.
But if books were categorized by the emotions they stir, this collection would be difficult to label. Emotionally, the stories are complicated; the prevailing sentiment they aroused in me was awkwardness—about myself and others. (One of the main characters of the story “Spores” can’t control her bowel movements, and “The Way They Saw Her” includes a painful scene in the bathroom of a bowling alley, mercifully unrelated to excrement.)
The awkwardness, however, was not a turn-off for me as a reader. To the contrary, I wallowed in it and it gave me goosebumps. It provided subtle tension that moved the stories forward.
The worlds Poland builds feel real. Whether writing about teaching (multiple stories), living in Las Vegas (“Landline”) or a Latin American country (“The Neighbor’s Cat”), or caviar farming and infertility (“Milking”), the circumstances are specific and convincing. I couldn’t help but wonder if Poland had personal experience with all of these things; the details are that intimate.
“Milking” begins: “She and Kyle were caviar farmers. It always made for a good introduction at parties. What does it take to farm caviar? someone would always ask. Now, Diane would say, a total commitment. At first, she thought farming meant being in control of the fish, the pH levels, the water temperatures and the schedule of the harvest, but you had to be ready when the fish were ready. You had to care for them with the all-consuming devotion of a parent, which was funny, funny in the way that something is the opposite of funny, because that was the thing they really wanted and the thing she could not provide.”
In an interview with author Tom Franklin, her former professor at Ole Miss, Poland said she watched YouTube videos to learn more about caviar farming. She clearly did more than perfunctory Googling when researching this topic and the others.
All of these qualities in so many of the stories make it difficult for me to select a standout in the collection. My favorites include “Milking,” “Spores” and the dark, surrealistic opener “The Shed.”
However, it’s easy for me to identify what I think is the book’s lone misstep.
While many of the stories are long, “Overnights Welcome” feels long. A parade of plotlines and characters (many with common names) are introduced, and I had trouble following the stories and who was who. It’s clear that a mosquito-borne virus similar to West Nile has altered life—which is, of course, timely considering the COVID-19 pandemic—but the storyline is underdeveloped.
My assumption is “Overnights Welcome” was a novella written earlier than most of the other stories in the collection, and it was revised and included to beef it up. But, in my opinion, it breaks the momentum of the book and feels out of place.
If you’re not familiar with the English Ph.D. program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas—and I realize you are probably not— What Makes You Think You’re Awake? is one more reason to get acquainted with it. The program has produced several writers of note, including Alissa Nutting (Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls and Tampa), David Armstrong (Reiterations) and Olivia Clare (The 26-hour Day and Disasters in the First World). With the release of her debut book, Poland can be added to this list. (Disclosure: I received my MFA in creative writing from UNLV and taught at the school.)
While perusing publicity materials for What Makes You Think You’re Awake?, before reading the book, I braced myself for an outlandish, abstract affair. Something sci-fi-tinged and surrealistic (à la Nutting’s Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls). But Poland infuses the stories with a sense of surreality while keeping them grounded. Imagine a hot-air balloon rising from the earth, but never drifting out of reach.
This balancing act, along with the writing, world-building and insight into human nature, makes this an auspicious debut—and Poland a writer whose follow-up book I’ll eagerly await.