"None of this story makes sense when you tell it straight," disclaims the narrator of "Refiner's Fire," one of the stories in The Imaginary Lives of Mechanical Men. Randy F. Nelson, the author and Davidson College professor of English, might say the same thing of the 12 other stories in his debut collection, which won the 2006 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. Although he writes in succinct, often clipped and even hard prose, Nelson's tales have crooked gaits, cockeyed aspects and irregular shapes.
The book is aptly titled. The worlds of many of these stories are fantastically imaginary and imaginative, even hallucinatory. In "Food Is Fuel," a dissolute writer in a hospital sickbed drifts in and out of consciousness, attempting a fitful reconciliation with his attendant daughter while awake, then in his sleep dreamwriting a fanciful film noir tale of a cannibalistic Japanese magician in a nightclub. "Here's A Shot of Us at the Grand Canyon" takes a frustrated suburban dad and gets him lost in the unlikely wilderness behind his house, with his (autistic?) son in tow, and led by his (talking?) dog, Rex. The woman with a haunted past in "Pulp Life" collects, fittingly, old issues of the 1930s magazine Weird Tales. Some of the stories set up cryptic, almost Borgesian encounters that anticipate violence but resolve instead into oneiric mood, enigmatic images or philosophical fugues.
But these conceptual extravagances do indeed seem mechanical, as though they've been pieced together from disparate sources: horror and gumshoe yarns of the 1930s are a major influence on Nelson, along with Southern gothic literature, sci-fi, there's even a nod to Heart of Darkness. Five of the stories are grouped together under the subtitle "They Have Replaceable Valves and Filters," which is another way Nelson might have described his writing. It's as if, like a feverish inventor, he'd spread out on his worktable a head full of fragmentary ideas, borrowed narratives, potent image-objects and a few unusual words ("chitinous" appears in two stories), and then set about assembling them into stories. That process may account for their peculiar shapes, but Nelson may be trying to reproduce the same vital mechanism in each one: the quartet of stories after "Replaceable Valves" is subtitled "The Ticking and Tocking of Their Hearts."
No surprise, then, that the layers of construction in Nelson's writing are readily visible, nor that the narrative perspective zooms from satellite aerial shots all the way down to virtually handheld POVs of men descending into subterranean workrooms and the pitch-black bowels of capsized ships. Nelson's stories range widely in locale, too, from the Deep South to the Congo, from top-secret chimp research labs to seedy motels. And the protagonists are likewise motley: jaded journalists and writers, diseased expatriates, felons, Cherokee prison guards.
But for all his varied people and their stories, Nelson's main preoccupation is not with character or plot, but with situations and environments. He drops ordinary people into extraordinary, disorienting, often perilous predicaments (most literally in "The Cave," in which a woman tries to rescue a man trapped in one), and cooly observes them as they try to work their way out.
Taken as a whole, The Imaginary Lives of Mechanical Men is like a reopening of long-closed cases. Nelson's characters tend, like Raymond Chandler's detective Philip Marlowe, toward laconic sentence fragments: one of them "spoke in single words and phrases, like a man who has spent the last of his energy in an uphill race." They may be world-weary and confounded, but Nelson makes them pick up their pieces again, as though, if pieced together right—perhaps with a patient reader's help—they might finally solve a mystery.