One will not find hope or a glimmer of happiness in Adam Haslett’s collection of short fiction, You Are Not A Stranger Here: Stories. Released in 2002 by Random House, the stories that comprise this beautiful collection are effortlessly and deeply heartbreaking, that one ends up hurt, sullen and melancholic with each tale told, with each conclusion and resolution.
Each of the nine stories presented in this volume vary in plot, conflict, content and structure. In “Notes to my Biographer,” we are introduced to Franklin Caldwell Singer, an aging inventor obsessed with the creation and production of seemingly useless machines, and accompanies him in the journey he takes to try and reconnect with his neglected gay son, Eric, who happens to be the only member of his family that continues to acknowledge his existence. Franklin does this attempt at reconnection by prying on Eric’s life, by invading the life he has built with Graham, his lover, and by trying to make him see the sense and rationale regarding his latest innovative idea, a bicycle that stores energy when used, a bicycle that can be converted into a motorcycle. Franklin’s attempts eventually alienate his son, who has been patient with him all his life. In the “Beginnings of Grief,” a young man who had just come to grips with his mother’s suicide and his father’s tragic car accident find himself sexually drawn to his classmate, Gramm, a brute of a jock, who, like many of his kind, is homophobic. Oddly enough, after an awkward moment in one of their classes, in which our narrator kicks the jock’s shin just so he would get noticed, Gramm invites our protagonist over to his house. What takes place is a brutal and unmerciful beating followed by the realization of both their sexual and carnal desires. The protagonist then enters the erotic world where pain is synonymous with pleasure, where a slap across the cheeks and a punch on the stomach is as powerful as a caress on the thighs or a kiss on the lips, where passion always means violence, where the lines between attraction and spite are blurred. In “War’s End,” Paul accompanies his wife, Ellen, to the quaint and peaceful town of Saint Andrews, where she will be pursuing an academic study on the lives of women in the forefront of the Second World War. Paul, who’s been suffering from depression for years, wanders out to the city, where he chances upon a grandmother and his dying, ailing grandson, the one person who has been able to calm the raging turmoil of his emotions, the one person who he can dedicate his life to. And so, at the end of the story, he abandons his wife, the one person who persevered and took care of him for this peacefulness and sense of belonging. The three stories, which encompass the emotional gravitas of the collection, are vastly different from each other, obviously, yet all of them share a similar plight done by their respective protagonists, and that is the re-affirmation of their mortality and the discovery of comfort through suffering and tragedies.
Take note that the choices they took are not matters that were decided on because they yearned for that kind of outcome. They are still victims of circumstances, like the rest of us. We can say that their unfortunate fates, the agony that envelops them, are products of their inability to succeed in their pursuit of overcoming the moral and ethical transgressions that they each possess. Franklin is aware of the neglect he has shown his children, hence the reunion he instigates with his son, which he says is “only one that meant anything to (him)” (22). The protagonist in “The Beginnings of Grief” is aware of the void left by his parent’s absence, and so, like anyone, he fills it. Granted that the manner in which he fills is through the fulfillment of his masochistic tendencies, it is still a viable attempt to defeat the enemy that is emptiness. Their actions were simple attempts to make sense of each of their lives, attempts which led to failure. This failure, ironically, provided them with a sense of accomplishment. And so, these characters begin to embrace their greatest sufferings willingly, over and over again, as if the whole process of accepting their particular variation of pain is what makes them human and is what sustains them, as if the purpose of their existence lies in the chaos and tumultuous nature of their actions. For some odd reason, we get the feeling that it is the order and “sense” they have been seeking. At the end of each story, we find the characters comfortable in the mess they have made for themselves.