The Extraordinary in the Ordinary

The title "The Rock Eaters " is surrounded by stylized tropical island and a drawing of a large insect,

Brenda Peynado ’06

The Rock Eaters
Penguin Books
288 pages, $16

The Rock Eaters is a compulsively readable short story collection full of extraordinary happenings. Brenda Peynado ’06 makes the most of every single word in this debut collection, writing with confidence and musing thoughtfully on inclusivity.

The stories present social situations and family dynamics that are somewhat ordinary, yet become extraordinary in the telling. Peynado brings society’s fears and preoccupations to life, making strange happenings seem less strange and more like a not-so-far-fetched “What if?” Praying to hulking, birdlike angels perched on top of suburban houses might seem odd, but longing to keep families and communities safe from gun violence is something everyone can understand. In another story, the familiar “thoughts and prayers” refrain manifests in an unfamiliar way. In the title story, children begin to levitate, flying away from their parents and their home country, which leads them to eat rocks to stay on the ground.

Each of Peynado’s unique worlds is introduced by a first-person narrator. Her prose is rife with “I”s who are never identified by name and even numerous “we”s, groups of people serving as collective narrators. This anonymity invites readers to imagine themselves as the “I” in the midst of the strangeness. In the absence of a fully fleshed-out protagonist, the stories get right to the point. Peynado beautifully employs the short story form with her concise world building. She seamlessly explains odd phenomena—like how a small town’s sorrows manifest as stones attached to its residents’ bodies—while also quickly propelling an emotionally fraught storyline of a young man moving back home with a girlfriend who isn’t sure she wants to live there.

“Speculative” is the best single genre label for The Rock Eaters, but one genre cannot truly encapsulate these stories. They stretch beyond the limits of time, space, and the known world. The stories span contemporary fiction, magical realism, and science fiction. Peynado writes about alien dragonflies, class privilege, advanced medical technology, Dominican immigrant experiences, and degrees of relative whiteness all with a cohesive style that makes her stories linger in the imagination. Readers will lie awake at night unsure how an estranged aunt disappeared inside her excessively locked apartment, haunted by visions of a town’s perennial drownings, or simply wondering how Peynado came up with so many inventive ways to reckon with love, loss, and longing.

Funderburg works in publishing in New York City.

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