One need look no further than Xhenet Aliu’s slim volume of darkly humorous stories to be reminded that mankind is nothing more than highly evolved animals. Domesticated Wild Thingsand Other Stories is a masterful collection of humanity at its worst. What remains constant is that these tales are frighteningly recognizable, not due to a lack of originality—for there are unique and bizarre situations—but instead for the stark portrayal of the monsters that lurk inside the people we call family and friends.
Rarely do short story collections capture their title so effectively. The characters here are (almost) universally dislikeable, little more than animals even at their most sympathetic. That appears to be Aliu’s major point: that despite terms like “society” and “civilization,” at heart we are all just “domesticated.” Granted, the circumstances these characters find themselves in are disagreeable, and while background is a common casualty of the short story form, there is a strong sense that these characters are partly responsible for their situation. They are causes of their environment as much as they are victims of it, and there is little hope of them bettering themselves.
Matriarchal deprecation is a major theme of the tales; almost every story involves a particularly flawed mother figure, which may be commentary on the inherent flaws of parenthood. Here are mothers who are abusive, neglectful, or overbearing. In “The Kill Jar,” the mother of the adolescent narrator divorces his father to shack up with the boy’s paternal grandfather. In the story “Flipping Property,” a widow with two children tries desperately to cope with her financial issues and the grief she feels about losing her husband. Even stronger is the grief that she feels at being an unloving mother—something she recognizes and wishes to change but cannot—perhaps because her own mother is hypercritical and devoid of feeling.
In the excellent story “Feather Ann,” the main character is a young woman who counsels children at a local YMCA. She is put in a mothering role, though the story shows that she nevertheless maintains childlike qualities herself. As she fixates on a troubled girl, the main character is forced to also confront mortality. Her own mother is dying in a nearby hospital of a cancer that may be a complication of a venereal disease. This revelation creates a perception that, despite being a loving mother, her death and subsequent abandonment of her daughter are a result of misdeeds.
These stories clearly portray characters who should not be mothers (and sometimes fathers, too), suggesting that the ability to conceive children does not necessarily mean one should, which leaves little hope for the children who must suffer these parents. Those children do suffer, and that creates another message: that innocence has no place in Aliu’s world. Children are destined to become hopelessly confused and lost by the dysfunctional environments around them. The occurrences make for traumatic childhoods, and youth is a victim of adulthood. These children will grow up to be little better than their parents, carrying on an endless cycle of dysfunction.
As is common for such circumstances, negative emotions manifest in aggressive and violent tendencies. That violence is more of a subtext, strongly suggested but rarely described in graphic detail. Several of the stories leave the reader just on the cusp of complete obliteration, showing that the pressures of portrayed domesticity and civilization inevitably break everyone, but the consequences are always just after the story ends. The effect of such style is that the reader realizes the despicable and eagerly awaits some sense of justice, even if they know that justice will be something just as deplorable. Thus, readers are frustrated when denied the details of such actions and thereby become one of Aliu’s “domesticated wild things,” effectively perpetuating the breakdown of normalcy that she presents. To involve the reader not only with the stories but also with the style certainly reflects skill.
Having such talent should not necessitate the vulgar titles that appear in the collection. Two of the more disappointing stories are “Two Assholes” and “How to Play Shit” which seem distasteful, though in this sort of world with these sorts of characters perhaps that is to be expected. Aesthetics, though, is not always necessary, and perhaps blunt but honest language is better than ornate creativity that disguises average story. An example of a good story with a bad title would be “Ramon Beats the Crap Out of George, a Man Half His Size.” Do not be fooled by the unrefined title, for this is a powerful story, beautifully written, about society’s perceptions of people considered normal and those considered different.
The question then arises of how much regard should expectations be given? The characters here expect little and receive little, and after reading their stories we can hardly expect anything more from them. The expectations must be high for Xhenet Aliu, though, because this collection deservedly won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, and stories of this caliber will be difficult to improve upon, even if readers will expect nothing less.