Fictional accounts often go to great lengths to portray so-called human anomalies — conjoined twins, bearded ladies — as being just like the norms, with bad habits and high aspirations, mothers and fathers, and dreams of a better life. In Stacy Carlson's debut novel, Among the Wonderful, her two main characters are a giantess and a widowed taxidermist, both anxious to keep themselves separate from the human rabble; both are similarly saved by the breaking down of their individual walls to let the wonder of the world in.
The wonders of this particular world are peculiar ones indeed — both Ana Swift and Emile Guillaudeu are employees of the American Museum, P.T. Barnum's first grand effort at finding those suckers he asserted were born so often. Though Barnum himself shows up seldom in Among the Wonderful, Carlson, now of Oakland, became interested in him while driving cross-country toward her MFA at Sarah Lawrence College, the showman's autobiography her company. "I became fascinated with this idea of a point in America's history when 'modern entertainment' was born," she explained. "For me it seemed an alchemical transition, invoked partially by the large number of exploratory expeditions that were bringing exotic specimens (including people) back to the city for display, partly because of the proliferation of news media in cities like New York, and because of people like Barnum who were savvy to the psychological elements of entertainment, such as a person's desire to be fooled, or their appetite for the exotic, strange, and taboo.
"Also on that same road trip, somewhere in southern Ontario, I walked into a diner and was served pie by an extremely tall woman. She wasn't a giantess, per se, but I'd say she was 6'5," at least. I watched the way she moved and the way everyone in the restaurant stared at her. Since I was still reading Barnum's autobiography, I related this to the accounts of giants in his employ."
Carlson, who appears Thursday, August 11, at Diesel (5433 College Ave., Oakland), has done field biology work in between writing and editing gigs, most recently spending months at Bancroft Library, investigating the state of some of the Bay Area's marine species before Europeans landed on California's shores. "The historical ecology stuff was actually surprisingly human. I read 19th-century accounts of the lighthouse keepers on the Farallon Islands (those were some lonely dudes), journals kept by San Francisco Presidio soldiers (also lonely), French, British, and Russian ships logs, gold miner's tales. ... In both [this research and Among the Wonderful], old newspapers were hugely important. Newspapers are the best media to use when you're really trying to get a glimpse into a bygone culture."
Her portrait of mid-19th-century New York is as finely hatched as any, with gritty Five Points teeming with malice and child neglect and society ladies kicking off suffrage meetings with spiritualist sessions. But what draws you in are her two narrators, each fumbling their way toward the rest of humanity, toward what is wonderful about being part of the world. Among warring Native American tribes, a "human calculator," and a vast animal menagerie, Swift and Guillaudeu each sit simmering in their own brand of "other," she secretly scribbling a memoir and yearning for the days before she sprung to nearly eight feet in height; he mourning lost chances at love and the way the museum once was, a paean to the natural order of things. 7 p.m., free. 510-653-9965 or DieselBookstore.com