In “Ugly Ducks,” the story that opens Man’s Companions, a recent collection by Joanna Ruocco, a woman sits in a dentist’s waiting room and fumes. Another patient has entered the room, one whose flawless appearance feels like a rebuke to her own, ordinary looks. The story seems to be headed for social commentary—perhaps an altercation will expose the difficulty of living in the shadow of an unachievable paradigm of beauty, embodied here in the rival patient—but Ruocco delivers something stranger than banal moralizing. In the final paragraph, she steers the narrative into foreign territory, and the weirdness of her conclusion is doubled by her ability to meet and then flout expectations with a single gesture, offering up the anticipated feminist insights in the least predictable fashion. Ruocco writes:
The woman’s pantsuit is salmon or coral colored. Some people try to make themselves visible, and some people try to make themselves invisible. In the animal kingdom, females are usually invisible, dirt-colored, speckled things that resemble bogs, leaves, or scrubby bushes, background components. When you attract attention, this signals that you are expendable. You don’t have a uterus. You don’t have eggs to warm, or mouths to feed.
Writers often treat metaphors as ornaments that enrich, but remain subordinate to, narrative progression; Ruocco reverses this relationship. The tale is brief enough—and the conceit is powerful enough, with its arresting images and punchy, second-person generalizations—to elevate the pseudoscientific language of the “animal kingdom” above the story line, which is, on its own, little more than a sketch. The plot is only a springboard for Ruocco’s fearless tumble into the mire of metaphor. Here, in brackish waters where “females” cower under mud and leaves, Ruocco restores the power of a familiar critique by rendering it uncanny.
“Small Sharks,” the story that follows “Ugly Ducks,” shares with it a prefatory quality, so that the book’s first fictional forays constitute an overture to the rest of the collection. In “Small Sharks,” Ruocco suggests that readers are as responsible as writers for the successes and failures of literary art—a claim most often associated with lyric poetry rather than with fiction, and almost never with the sort of fiction at issue here: “genre fiction,” pulpy stuff to be passively consumed by the least sophisticated readers.
Ruocco’s story suggests a very different readerly reality. The narrator describes her husband’s frustration with a science fiction novel, parts of which he reads aloud, his voice sardonic as it underlines risible turns of phrase. She is bewildered by his derision. At the story’s end, he renders a final, dismissive judgment, but it is he who inadvertently receives the critical blow. “I can’t imagine it at all,” he says. “That is mostly what is wrong with this book.”
The narrator suffers from no such imaginative deficiency. The scantest knowledge of the novel, which describes the lives of “humans who are to repopulate Earth but for the time being live in an underwater colony off the Jersey Shore,” is all it takes to plunge her into the deepest reaches of a phantasmagoric ocean:
“I can imagine living underwater,” I say and it’s true that I have imagined the very thing. There would be round windows with a million tons of pitch-black water pressing against them and, occasionally, small sharks with light-producing organelles in their skin would pass back and forth, leaving milky streamers.
The image is a small triumph: it achieves that rare sort of waywardness that provokes thought as it departs from the everyday. Ruocco avoids self-conscious zaniness, offering a graceful invitation to an otherworldly seascape, which flows effortlessly from the story’s narrative momentum, the silence of the gliding creatures uninterrupted by bells or whistles. The passage is also metafictional without being obtrusive: “milky” white tracings on a “pitch-black” backdrop create a photonegative of the written page, which mirrors the narrator’s approach to interpretation: she places the novel’s contents under an unexpected, transformative light. The narrator outperforms her husband by allowing the novel to stimulate her imagination, and then allowing her imagination to abandon the novel. As the story would have it, literature, no matter the prestige of its niche, is always an occasion for the imagination’s tour de force.