“He’s not anybody,” a newly widowed mother says to her young daughter. “Aren’t things fine the way they are?”
It turns out things weren’t fine. In the short story “Duplex,” the child Jen narrates her relationship with her mysterious tenant and neighbor Garvey. Garvey is a lonely man, a “not anybody” man, who ends up sexually assaulting young Jen. Jen physically lives but is also dead, like a body washed to shore with “grayish skin.” This story sets the stage for a beautiful, provocative, and haunting collection of short stories called Invisible Men by Eric Freeze. Each story offers us a meditation on what it means to be “invisible” and what happens when humanity tangles with our animalistic impulses.
The stories in Freeze’s collection do what great fiction is supposed to do for us as readers. We sidle up next to the characters, and we're not sure whether to sympathize with them or revile them. Insofar as fiction is a study of “humanity,” these stories force us to confront feelings like fear, shame, anger, confusion, and indignity, and to negotiate in our own minds where rational thinking and instinct collide.
Take, for example, “Lone Wolf,” the story featured here at Carve Magazine in the Winter 2013 edition. “It is inconvenient being a wolf,” a young boy named Jason says in the opening line of the story. This wolf is “hungry.” Literally, that means that this 11-year old boy will open his mouth and sink his teeth into a classmate’s flesh. Figuratively, we discover that this young boy’s father has left the family. The boy becomes a predator in order to cope with abandonment, yearning, and loss. Like Garvey in the opening story, Jason too is invisible until he does something that makes him very much visible in the eyes of his mother, his peers, and his school. His teacher looks him in the eye and says, “You are a monster.”
I linger for a moment over what the word "monster" means in the context of Freeze's stories. Monsters evoke gothic images of Frankenstein and Dracula. I think of beasts like Grendel who have superhuman qualities but who either lack morality altogether or whose moral sensibilities are compromised. Monsters can lack empathy, and their objectives tend to be self-serving. Many of Freeze's protagonists feel they have no self to serve, so they exist in some liminal state between beast and human. For example, the young boy in "Lone Wolf" has lost his way because his father abandoned the family. His reaction is to regress literally to becoming a predatory animal. Another story tells us of a man named Adam who cuts and takes the finger of a Sasquatch girl as proof of his worth in the world. In yet another example, "The Invisible, Invisible Man" is about the protagonist Fred who is processing a lost relationship with a woman named Donna who will not return his phone calls. Fred is desperate and alone and wears overalls that he feels make him invisible. The story concludes with him attacking a woman who jogs by his house. "He reached, has invisible cudgel arms trying to find another body, and his wrists hit shoulders. If he could just hold her for a while. Something warm." His impulse is both human and beastly, creating a character that is both repulsive and sympathetic.
Reconciliation is another prominent theme in Freeze's work in the sense that his characters seek reconciliation but fail. In "Our Shared History," Kirby, an elderly foster parent to a child named Tyler, shows up on Tyler's doorstep after many years to try to be a part of her life. The second person point of view works to great effect here in showcasing Kirby's uneasiness, guilty, and uncertainty as he tries to apologize to a foster child whose behavioral issues caused Kirby and his wife to quit their guardianship. "It probably won't surprise you that I see our short time together as one of the great failures of my life," Kirby says in the narrative but not to Tyler directly. The contrast between Kirby's contrite inner monologue and the stilted dialogue between him and Tyler heightens how Kirby's effort to reconcile is torturous to him. Kirby is a widower now and offers to help Tyler, a single mom, with her children. For a brief moment, Tyler considers this but says to Kirby at the end - "Please get our of my fucking house, Kirby." The reconciliation motif is front and center in this story, and other characters in Freeze's work seek reconciliation with coworkers, spouses, and self.
Invisible Men is an invitation to look into the hearts of characters who feel alone. We see in the stories a half-human, half-animal state of being, the place within us all where the rational and the instinctual collide. “And suddenly,” Freeze writes in the last sentence of “Lone Wolf,” I want to be a wolf again, the inconvenience and all, if not just to stop this human ache, the worry, the unfairness of a life gone wrong.”