NEDA DISNEY’S DEBUT novel-in-stories, Planting Wolves, unfolds like a crossword puzzle drawn over a map of the Los Angeles freeway system. Winding, playful, and bloody, it keeps you slightly uncomfortable for the majority of the ride, unsure of what to expect or how things overlap. For an observant explorer, the connections between the six main characters, all of which get their own dedicated chapters, are easy enough to pinpoint, though just difficult enough so that the act of discovery itself feels like you’re a part of a tantalizing time warp. It is a delicious treat to see connections, to spot shared vibrations, even as we watch characters completely miss each other in the night.
The six L.A. creatures in question are wildly and violently lonely: a navel-gazing writer on the verge of suicide, a time-traveling housewife, a production assistant with stigmata, a co-dependent AA sponsor, a sex addict, and film costumer who may be carrying the literal weight of the world in her pores. You can find them in La Crescenta or Glendale, in West Hollywood or Redondo Beach, on film sets or the backstages of theaters, in suburban homes or new age meditation studios.
These strangers are their own special breed of L.A. narcissist — self-obsessed, sure, but seemingly out of grief more than anything else. A loss of time, a loss of family, a loss of their own selves. They are viscerally disconnected from their bodies, from their purpose, from each other. Their longing makes them hungry, and their hunger urges them to the point where they begin to emotionally feed on themselves, and each other. There is plenty to keep you laughing and your heart breaking as you explore this unusual, almost-magical-but-definitely-absurd world Disney has painted.
It’s in the second chapter when real animals take center stage for a moment, drawing these characters into the context of nature and survival. The lonely art-obsessed housewife Mrs. Randall learns about her husband’s secret obsession: wolves that were “planted” (or transplanted) on Coronation Island as an experiment, to see if they would survive and populate the island. Turns out, after almost a year of island life, the wolves had stopped feeding on the deer population and had resorted instead to feeding on each other. “The wolves, who didn’t know why they’d been put there, had grown confused and hungry,” Mrs. Randall says. “They were not crazy killers or a real menace. They were just out of place and kept doing what they did according to their own customs.” We may have more in common with these wolves than we care to admit.
Time slips this way and that, and it is sometimes difficult to tell what is real and what is not in Planting Wolves. Is the writer really in his own personal hell where everyone can read his mind and there are no secrets? Is the housewife really traveling through time, and the production assistant really communicating with God? Or are all of these just symptoms of our physical bodies interacting with death, wasted desire, or a disease we are not yet equipped to fight or understand?
The beauty in the absurd world of Planting Wolves is how little “real” matters in the truth of these characters’ lives. The shifts and changes are not so much plot driven but pushed forward by inaction. There is a lot that happens in these stories, over whole lives or over a few short months, but the things accomplished are usually done through accident. The unhappy housewife gets out of an unhappy marriage because of a pair of socks. The production assistant prays. The writer commits suicide.
And when they get what they want, or what they think they want, it is met with a sense of dread or paralysis. We often imagine what our lives would be like if they were to unfold like a well-plotted movie, but can we truly be the people we always hoped we would be?
I found myself frustrated at times with the prose, playful and poised as it was, as it often seemed to sit in deep contemplative inaction, in long expositions, or internal wonderings of the characters. I don’t know if this frustration is with the prose itself or with the characters and how powerless they felt in their own lives and my inability to relate.
Fiction should force us to see ourselves in starkness, in ugliness, as often as in beauty, and Planting Wolves strikes a nice balance between hopelessness and quirky magic. Disney, I feel, will continue to hone this voice over time, but this debut is a sweet, brutal beginning.
It’s Mrs. Randall’s experience of Alzheimer’s as a disease that facilitates time travel in order for her to fix her past mistakes, that will continue to haunt me, and it seems a fitting explanation of the entire novel-in-stories, more so than the wolves:
There were times when, after going back to a certain era and maybe taking back something from the present or maybe having a conversation she meant to have, that she wished someone could be there to hear about her adventure when she got back to real time. About how she’d been going and fixing things that had up to then bothered her or had sat in the back of her mind. Little things like never having thanked someone or never having bought a dress.
It was almost as if, by going back and changing these things, she was unburdening her brain of the weight of them.
There is a visceral, child-like longing in this passage and in the entire book, a wish that does not dissipate with age or experience or heartbreak. We desperately desire to shape and sculpt our own lives so that we can become people we can admire — people with lives as well constructed as any novel or summer blockbuster. Why is it not possible to comb through our lives for errors, marking corrections with a big red pen? Why can we not hold on to the moments that do go as planned, that bring us fleeting happiness, for just a little bit longer?
Planting Wolves does not give us answers, but rather new meditations on the ways in which our missed connections, missed opportunities, and missed potentials continue to haunt our minds, and if, somehow, we can ever free ourselves from those ghostly rattles.
Chelsea Sutton writes weird fiction and impossible plays and films. She was a 2016 PEN America Emerging Voices fellow, and she has just finished her first short story collection, Curious Monsters, which was the runner-up for the 2018 Madeline P. Plonsker Emerging Writers Residency Prize. She has an MFA from UC Riverside.