The initial premise seems simple and light-hearted. An English teacher, Laura Freedman, gives her students a simple writing prompt: “write a one-page story in which your favorite mythical creature resolves the greatest sociopolitical problem of our time.” However, in Kathleen Founds debut novel, (or, perhaps more fittingly, her collection of short stories which masterfully weave several separate but cohesive narratives throughout), the execution is anything but simple, and underneath the whimsy of a minotaur changing the legal drinking age to sixteen or a succubus getting young Phil Gasher laid, there is a genuine emotional weight that lets the reader relate to the characters’ various crises.
The book isn’t afraid to experiment, as it doesn’t just rely on the aforementioned writing prompts, (which practically beg the reader to consider how his or her favorite mythical creature would indeed solve one of the greatest sociopolitical problems of our time), but moves in and out of various settings and formats. From Ms. Freedman’s stay at Bridges: Psychiatric Wellness Solutions, where she corresponds with two of her students, Janice and Cody, and the detailed recreation of her brochure on how to earn “Wellness Points,” a kind of mental health credit score, to a fevered and frantic correspondence between Janice and Cody themselves, to emails, and even a cookbook, the novel absolutely delights in presenting the reader with a controlled fragmentation. The most striking thing perhaps is how readily accessible all of this chaos is. It’s to the point where one has to wonder if work is almost self-aware of the many hats it’s trying to juggle. A particularly meta moment early on seems to reinforce this idea, when Ms. Freedman’s Wellness Solutions brochure gleefully assures her that, by checking in, she has “declared Emotional Bankruptcy.”
These moments—and many others like them—make this collection a must-read for anyone looking for a book that balances the ethereal with humor, emotional weight, and playfulness. When Mystical Creatures Attack! isn’t afraid to let its audience think and have fun at the same time.
When Mystical Creatures Attack!
University of Iowa Press, 2014