Meagan Cass’ chapbook, Range of Motion, is filled with quiet moments of indecision, small pains, and good but misguided intentions. The characters peopling her stories are trying, really trying to do right by the other people in their families—indeed, Lindsey Hauck’s review on The Collagist says as much—but there remains an undercurrent of fate. The world is working against these people.
Rooted in realism with a touch of the fantastic, Cass invites you into a small world but one full of high stakes: one where kids advancing into an upper-level soccer league can lead their parents astray, one where a family dog only pushes a mother deeper into depression, one where a new hot tub drives a wedge further between a husband and wife. Cass’ attention to detail throughout magnifies the depth of these everyday sadnesses. A father works away at his exercise machine, eschewing almost everything else: “My running shoes are un-scuffed by the craggy world outside the portholes.” He’s developed such tunnel vision, such devotion, that nothing else matters but mindlessly working out in the basement.
Many of Cass’ stories happen in basements, making me think of the many origin stories of the world, where humans emerge either from the sea or from the earth. It also reminds you of Hell, or Purgatory. Characters stuck in cycles of motions until someone from above calls them up, breaks the pattern: “It was summer…when our mother stood at the top of the stairs and told us to come on up, it was time to quit playing [ping-pong], time to pack our things, I was going to college and she was selling the house, buying a smaller one without a basement, without room for a ping-pong table.” Leaving the basement means facing the world and taking on responsibility, things many of Cass’ characters actively avoid. In “Greyhound,” the husband buys a greyhound under the mistaken assumption that the dog will pull his wife out of her depression. Rather than face facts and help her treat her illness head-on, he prefers to live in a fantasy world: “He imagined woman and dog coursing the trails of FDR Park in the blue-black mornings, her coming home flushed, downing a glass of orange juice, making them bacon and eggs. She’d laugh at his jokes. They’d make love. She’d finally get better.”
Each of Cass’ stories echo the title of the collection in that her characters have exhausted their abilities and have atrophied, are impeded, or fail to recognize their capabilities and take responsibility accordingly. They’re trying, Cass shows us, but is it enough? Nowhere else is this better illustrated than in the collection’s final story, “Portrait of My Father as a Foosball Man, 1972-2012.” Cass focuses on one figure on a foosball table, gets inside his imagined brain and his past, ultimately coming to rest when the foosball table is left abandoned in a basement: “It’s just that it’s been so long since anyone turned his metal spoke heart with purpose, so long since he’s shone his twitchy, hummingbird grace, so long since he’s listened to human players laugh and talk smack and howl in victory and defeat…” Life is passing this foosball figure by, a fear shared by many of the other characters in the collection, a fear we all share.
If there’s any drawback to Cass’ collection, it’s only a similarity of tone among the stories, but her economical and deft prose keeps the reader hooked, turning pages, wishing to delve deeper and deeper into this family, despite their problems and doubts. Cass’ chapbook is a funhouse mirror maze, flashes of yourself and other wanderers blurring together as you debate which way to turn. You try your best, but you’ll always get lost along the way.