There are writers who show us the world as it is and writers who show us the world as it is not, dropping surreal events and inflections into otherwise believable settings. The latter group often ends up showing us more about “reality” than the former. This is a large and well-established group: Lydia Davis. Miranda July. Steven Millhauser. Kevin Brockmeier. Chris Adrian. And many others. Ramona Ausubel belongs to this group; many of the stories in her new collection, “A Guide to Being Born,” contain elements of fantasy juxtaposed against starkly realistic elements, and the fantastic casts the realistic into relief. But what distinguishes Ausubel from the other writers practicing this near-genre is her expansiveness. Though that quality has its hazards, it hits its mark very securely here, more often than not in an epiphanic way.
The stages of human life, death, or grieving provide the subject for many of the stories here, most frequently birth or childhood, as the title suggests — which means, for this book, the act of being a parent. Ausubel torques these stories in unexpected ways, though, and her parent figures gain our sympathy by never being entirely able to cope with these twists. In “Poppyseed,” an 8-year-old developmentally challenged girl grows breasts and pubic hair, to the consternation of her parents — her body achieves the growth her brain cannot. When the girl’s breast buds are removed to stop that part of her physical development, her parents find a way to cope with the situation that is absurd, and in its own way violent, but believable in and of itself. In “Atria,” a pregnant woman becomes convinced that she is giving birth to various animals. While her extensive imaginings ultimately engulf her experience of birth, making it so she sees a baby seal when gazing directly at her human baby, her prenatal hallucinations reveal a great deal about universal all-too-human fears about what it is, exactly, that takes place during human conception and pregnancy.