Becky Hagenston, author of the previous short story collections A Gram of Mars, Strange Weather, and Scavengers, returns with The Age of Discovery, a set of stories that wonderfully blurs the boundary separating the real from the fantastic. The meshing between these two spectrums is what gives Hagenston’s collection its power. Yes, there are robots, accusations of witchcraft, creative museums, and young Bigfoot hunters, but inside these very stories, with their bizarre setups and circumstances, are deeply affecting and thoughtful narratives that deal with the complexities of marriage, adulthood, and parenthood. In short, The Age of Discovery, by connecting the magical with the worldly mundane, explores what it means to be truly human.
Some of the best stories in The Age of Discovery revolve around the human connection (and disconnection) to technology. In “Hi Ho Cherry-O,” for example, a researcher seeks assistance from her “Service Robot” named Wendell as she researches board games. As the story opens, Wendell refuses to help as he always has. Instead, he says, “Tie me up and leave me in the closet for an hour.” Although the narrator hesitates, she soon succumbs to his desires: “So I do it. I feel a little bit weird, but maybe it has something to do with his electrical system. I figure Wendell knows what’s best for himself. I don’t really know how these robots work. I’m more of a historian.” Eventually believing the behavior to be a possible glitch, she continues on; however, Wendell’s requests only get darker and darker. As the story progresses, we begin to see how the narrator and Wendell live in a world of numbness — a world so obsessed with technology and false realities that true feeling is, perhaps, gone altogether.
“In the Museum of Tense Moments,” another standout, occupies a similar space as “Hi Ho Cherry-O” in how it examines the disconnection technology has brought upon us. In this story, eleven-year-old Sarah just wants another Bot Buddy robot, similar to her current one Naomi, as her birthday gift. Sarah’s mother, instead, wants to take her daughter to a new museum in the city. Sarah begrudgingly agrees, and they go. The museum showcases “the ways the world used to work, all the opportunities for missed connections and miscommunication and misunderstandings and helplessness.” The exhibits feature a man sitting on a bench, a teenager waiting, on his bed, for a phone call, a woman by herself at a restaurant, and, “a dining room table with six people eating silently, not making eye contact. Two sputtering red candles on the table, a turkey carcass.” While the mother finds the museum to be “beautiful,” Sarah does not. She craves her robots — her virtual worlds — and she attempts to escape back inside it. It’s a heartbreaking story, and it’s one that shows Hagenston at her best.
The Age of Discovery depicts, as the title suggests, discovery in a variety of ways. In some cases, such as in “Rise,” where a baker’s wife’s dreams, featuring things like a tooth, a noisemaker, and a rabbit, show themselves in his loaves of bread, the reveal is more tangible. In others, as in the title story about two aging travelers from Mississippi, the revelation about who the man and woman are, both as individuals and as a couple, is much more internally realized.
Readers who enjoy the darkly absurd fiction of George Saunders or the bizarre setups of Aimee Bender should find a lot to appreciate in Becky Hagenston’s The Age of Discovery, a collection that, in its strangeness — or maybe because of its strangeness — allows us to discover a little more about ourselves.
The Age of Discovery
By Becky Hagenston
Mad Creek Books
Published August 11, 2021