In this collection of compact fictions, Nicolette Polek transports us to a gently unsettling realm inhabited by disheveled landlords, a fugitive bride, a seamstress who forgets what people look like, and two rival falconers from neighboring towns. They find themselves in bathhouses, sports bars, grocery stores, and forests in search of exits, pink tennis balls, licorice, and independence. Yet all of her beautifully strange characters are possessed by a familiar and human longing for connection: to their homes, families, God, and themselves.
In Polek’s deliciously unnerving debut, the mundane is made very strange, as everyday objects or normal people are considered in new and unsettling ways . . . A surprising and potent catalogue of small, eerie discoveries.
Rather than settling for one or two guiding themes, Polek offers an enjoyable balance of light and dark subject matter, sweet and bitter characters, cuddly and cruel moments . . . She has immense talent for sudden, quietly affecting turns of phrase, luminous details, and word choices that firmly pin images down . . . Some [stories] offer sharp social commentary, a bit like Diane Williams but with more warmth and vulnerability . . . A moving, impressively varied first collection.
When a foreign substance enters an oyster’s shell, one of its organs generates the same material that the shell is made of to encase the foreign object, to protect itself. Or: when an oyster gets a splinter, it produces a pearl. This is what the stories in Nicolette Polek’s debut collection, Imaginary Museums, remind me of. It’s a world we recognize, but something is always very off . . . Something sinister is always lurking in each of these tightly-coiled, polished gems."
Imaginary Museums reads like a kind of Twilight Zone, in which everyday people living their everyday lives find themselves in a prison of their own making. There’s something dark about them, but then you turn the page and find yourself laughing at her dry wit. Each story is tightly coiled, brightly polished, and they’re all a delight to discover."
Delightfully different, Imaginary Museums still happens to hit upon the human urge for connection, acceptance, and a higher power.
Polek’s stories are themselves trapdoors, to worlds that, though they feel like they could be our own, are separated to some degree by elements we might construe as strange in our everyday life."
These stories--more accurately categorized as flash fiction--are parable-like sketches, elegantly rendered, ranging from uncanny to mythical . . . Polek’s stories are not without a sense of profound grace . . . The beauty of these stories rests in their simplicity and control."
Drawing attention to artifice can be a dangerous game, but in Polek’s hands it is clear that the very awareness that threatens to ruin the spell of engaged reading is essential in understanding the characters within these stories, and why they act the way they do. In this collection--twenty-six short stories spread across four sections--attention is constantly being drawn to the performer in mid-action, fully aware of themselves as the observed, and reacting in interesting ways. This isn’t The Ways of Seeing, although I’d bet that some of the characters have heavily thumbed copies resting on their bedside tables . . . Polek’s work reminds me most of Edward Gorey’s illustrations . . . While the confines of the drawings may seem imposingly small, the boundaries are adorned with dashed-off curlicues that only a master hand could perform. Polek has a similar ability to draw you into the miniature, to warmly welcome you into richly conceived micro-worlds. But as soon as you get too close, you’re reminded: Look, don’t touch."
Nicolette Polek’s stories are little circuses of wonder and surprise. They make me feel wide awake. Plus Imaginary Museums is really pleasingly full of stuff: you’ve got hairpin narrative turns, unexpected drownings, saltshakers, trapdoors, chain saws, vodka. In one of my favorite stories, a bluebird sees the main character, but she never sees the bird. Imaginary Museums is delightfully alive.
There’s the sense that anything can happen in the stories of Imaginary Museums--a book full of surprising turns, fascinating characters, and perfect endings. The timelessness of Nicolette Polek’s voice is a wonder, and it will stay with you long after reading.
What are these? Weird parables? Dark dreams? Warnings about the afterlife, death, marriage? Like the best writers, Polek is willing to go to a disturbing place and stay there. She will not save our hero. She will join the shadowy forces and lead us in.
Like little crystalline shards, these wonderfully subtle, often laconic stories suddenly catch the light and cast it in unexpected, profoundly revealing directions. A quirky, startling debut.
Nicolette Polek’s voice is resigned, hopeful, funny, tender, and melancholy, with an older European sensibility that reminds me of some of my favorite translated works. The ambiguous tales in Imaginary Museums are full of the pleasure, disappointment, possibility, and mystery of life." --Kathryn Scanlan, author of Aug 9
"These rhythmic bulletins of crisp delirium infiltrate the bloodstream in a manner I can describe only as symphonic--a tender, lucid world takes shape beneath the world we know and swells to submerge us in its understated magic."
Nicolette Polek’s Imaginary Museums is a collection of pressure-cooked little diamonds: smart, funny, succinct, and sure to be a classic. People will be reading this book for a long time.
There are texts I always go back to because they both ground me and take me somewhere else, and Imaginary Museums is part of that list now, along with Robert Walser’s Microscripts and William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All. Polek’s wonderful ability to create such clear imagery both delicate and epic in only a few pages, sometimes only one, is absolutely magical. Her stories are like a vivid and revelatory dream that one unexpectedly has while taking a nap under the sun.
Nicely polished short stories with only a whiff of preciousness, which succeed in keeping the reader off balance as they peruse one vignette after another about lonely, thoughtful, yearning characters searching to make connections. The writing is lovely, which helps to keep the reader engaged even when the narratives venture into the unknown with no clear direction home. Polek plays with an obsessively narrow focus on material objects--a rope, a cat, a lump of grey matter--that come to represent a world of meaning in the best surrealist tradition. In tales that are separated into four sections--Miniature Catastrophes, American Interiors, Slovak Sceneries, and Library of Lost Things--there is enough variety and good writing to sustain interest to the end of the collection. Standouts include "The Dance," where a young couple cannot overcome inertia and egoism to have a real conversation, or "Girls I No Longer Know," which should be mandatory reading for all teenagers, or the title story, where an intelligent woman named Annie grapples with her sorrow and her hope for a happy future. Polek is one to watch.
This collection of short stories was like walking through a museum and reading the placards for miscellaneous pieces of art. Each story was entertaining and compelling on its own, but together than reveal a collective whole.