Many of the stories are set amid the 19th century passion for sophisticated mechanical inventions that were revolutionizing daily life at the time. But for all the formal and historical erudition here, the stories maintain a saving innocence. They are immigrants from the country of childhood, where the imagination, seeing a thing repeated, wonders what would happen if it were repeated again, and another time, and again forever? What if the rain never stopped and it flooded the whole world?
They more or less beg you to ask them what they are about. They seem to follow an inverted motto: A story should not be, but mean. As to the aboutness, here's a stab: These are stories about the adult's experience of the life his childhood self continues to lead after he has grown up. The adult mind doesn't destroy the child's mind, but only subsumes it. The clockwork automatons in this book, and the ladders of light up which a character can climb into the sky, and the sometimes asphyxiating lack of adult passion - all draw the reader toward the ruthless imagination of a child. Everything moves very slowly. The future will never come. The speed of growing up, from the adult's vantage, is dizzying; from the child's it is glacial.
So while these stories don't aspire to the pleasures and agonies of a dramatic narrative - the tales of change within a comprehensible world that children ask adults to repeat for the same reason it comforts babies to be swaddled - they do aspire to that other moment of childhood: You were alone in the dark, your imagination demanding, What if ... and then what if ... and then what if?Scibona was one of the fiction writers The New Yorker anointed in its 20 under 40 series last year. Read his story "The Kid"--available online to subscribers--and you'll see why he made the list.