On Michael Chabon’s A Model World and Other Stories

I’ve been meaning to read Michael Chabon for quite a while now and I think it was important to begin it with one of his first books, lest I again do the mistake of reading a better work then making the rather unsure pursuit of backtracking the author’s backlist expecting the same beauty and reverence that first book gave you (which I unfortunately experienced with Jeanette Winterson, when I first read Written on the Body, before reading her acclaimed debut, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, which I found to be unsatisfying).

A Model World and Other Stories was a very enjoyable collection, which I read thoroughly in less than five hours, during a particularly hot Sunday afternoon. Divided into two parts, the first section, entitled “A Model World,” comprises of six delightful narratives highlighting Chabon’s talent as a storyteller. In these stories, we are able to see his investment in his characters, the subtle technique he employs in exploring their whole life against the backdrop of a single moment, and even his careful but elegant analysis of their melancholia and solitude. At the same time, we are show his dedication to popular American culture and how it plays a pivotal role in the lives of his characters, whether it be something as common as the typical American wedding, to baseball, comic books and the American college experience.  The second section of the book is truly the best part of the story. Perfectly entitled “The Lost World,” it consists of five interlocking short stories concerning Nathan’s childhood and adolescence. From “The Little Knife,” which talks about his parent’s divorce, to “More than Human” and “Admirals,” which delves into the aftermath of divorce and the ever-pressing issue of sibling rivalry, to “The Halloween Party” and finally, “The Lost World,” where Nathan first feels desire and love and the sadness that comes along with it, Michael Chabon has rendered the entire excruciating progress of growing up. Other than the fact that I absolutely loved it that these stories represented a section of much a larger picture yet built to still have the ability to stand alone, I am in complete adoration of Chabon’s project which involves mapping out the entire erratic emotional landscape traversed in that transition from boyhood to manhood. I’m not talking about a single section of growth, or a particular angst, or a a unique pivotal experience, what Chabon showed is its utter entirety. It begins with the shattering of innocence and stability, the realization that life is full of unexpectedness and sadness, via divorce, a shattering that becomes more and more common. It continues with the ordeal that comes afterwards, and everything that comes along with it, the burden of nostalgia, the need for survival, and the irrepressible act to long for something and to fight for something, to conquer, to own, and to win. Finally, after the entire trauma caused by divorce, the irony comes, that need to fall in love, to be with someone, to be in that trap which has shattered you in the first place. And it is beautiful, especially with Chabon’s eloquence and wit.

I’ve always been attracted to initiation stories. I’ve always loved them. No other form of fiction can move me more than a very good initiation story, from JD Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye, to Gilda Cordero Fernando’s A Wilderness of Sweets, to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, to Douglas Coupland’s Hey Nostradamus and Eleanor Rigby. Chabon’s A Model World and Other Stories  now rank among my favorites. And yes, I’ve become a Chabonite and I think it’s time to put Manhood for Amateurs and The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay to my reading list.

Going Ape Shit Over A Book: On Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad

There comes a time when it’s just so damn difficult to write a proper review just because you are too in love with the subject of the piece. That’s the situation I face with Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which recently won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. When I first heard of this novel in 2010, back when Random House initially released the hardcover edition, it immediately got my attention.  Critics praised its publication, despite the uproar and celebration brought by Franzen’s Freedom. When everything else published suffered the ignoring eye of critics and reviewers, Egan’s work gained notice. Some even hailed it as “a new classic of American fiction.” However, that is not the reason why I possessed the incessant need to read the novel. I think I’ve heard and seen the phrase “new American classic” too many times to believe that a book could actually embody such a heavy-handed comment. My desire to read it stemmed from the fact that the work oddly enough sounded like a Cameron Crowe film, or a book penned by Lester Bangs. And by god, I was sold to that idea.

The narrative primarily focuses on Benny Salazar, an aging music producer and the former bassist of “The Pink Dildos,” and her assistant Sasha Taylor, a young woman with a serious kleptomania problem and a terrible past which includes a brief prostitution stint in Naples and a long addiction to heroin, marijuana, among other things. In the course of telling their stories, we are also told the stories of the other characters connected to the two protagonists: Lou, Benny’s mentor, one of the great music executives of the 70’s who lived the “Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll” lifestyle that became rampant in the during that era, Dolly, A PR specialist trying to regain her popularity and dignity after her tragic downfall, Lulu, Dolly’s daughter, who will eventually work for Benny in 2020, and Rob, Sasha’s suicidal best friend, who plays a pivotal role on how Sasha will pursue her life. In addition to that large cast, there’s also Ted, Sasha’s uncle who will search for his niece aimlessly in Naples while reflecting on his love for art and his family, Scotty, Jocelyn and Rhea, Benny’s band mates in The Pink Dildos,  and Kitty Jones, a popular actress who fell off the spotlight after she was almost raped by a journalist.  The multiple narratives of the story are set against the backdrop of the ever-changing American music scene, from the heydays of the punk movement of the seventies, to a speculative take on what the music will be like in 2020.

I began the novel expecting to read something like High Fidelity or Love is A Mixed Tape or even Almost Famous.  I opened the novel feeling relaxed, feeling laid back, anticipating that this will be a light reading, which was a foolish stance at that time. As the pages went on, I delved into a narrative far different from what I initially thought.  This may sound like a cop out, but the thing is, I love every damn section of the narrative. I like its Proustian vibe, on how it tries to tackle the subject of time, memory, its intertwined relationship and the effect brought on by its passing. I like it even more that the basic idea of an exploration was inspired by, of all things, an Elvis Costello song. I love how rock music plays a dominant role in the piece, how the power of this art form actually becomes an essential element in the assembly of one’s life and the structural integrity of a whole community, how one song can transcend its form of being a mere vehicle for entertainment and enjoyment and become a drive force that connects human beings to one another. I love the gimmicks, the so –called literary devices employed in the writing of the novel, how it resists labels and the concept of a genre, as the readers are never  made aware if the text is a novel, a collection of short stories, or a collection of interlocking short stories (From a bookselling and publishing point-of-view, Amazon lists the hardcover edition of this book as a short story collection, while the trade paperback edition is listed under novels, while in the Random House catalog, it’s under short story collections, even is the front cover of the book says it’s a novel). I like the sheer Bakhtinian feel of the novel, the multiplicity of voices (literally and literarily), the abundance of forms used, the constant shift from one decade to the other, to this place and that, to this character and another, and I love how there is no real structure to this seemingly endless shifting, embodying the chaos of their lives, and the pandemonium of the reader’s life. And damn, there’s a short story made entirely of PowerPoint slides, a short narrative focusing on the pauses of several great rock songs, told by Sasha’s daughter. What is the most gimmicky of the entire collection, also turns out the best, as it not only gives us a staggering amount of freshness, it’s also fun, enjoyable and slightly poignant as it tries to delves into the relationship of the family by using pie-charts, bar graphs and statistics.  The characters are instantly relatable and sympathetic. The structuring of the narrative is amazing. The points of view chosen, appropriate. Each detail is exact and precise. For me, the novel can do no wrong. It is perfect, so perfect that I’m starting wonder if what I’m saying is right, or I’m just saying this for the sole reason that this is the kind of novel I have always wanted to write.

Obviously, my biases have yet again taken over me. And I’ve only had my way with the novel once, so, following Nabokov’s paradigm for reading, I have barely touched what the novel really is. Months from now, I will go back to Egan’s work, and I might have a different opinion on the text, on those that I am in completely in adoration of. I might have my qualms about its structure, about how little time was given to a particular character, or about how the balance of the narrative(s) is just off. I may say shit about the whole PowerPoint narrative. Things could go awry and that much is true. But right now, at this very moment, I am completely in love with the book, something which I have not experienced for quite a while in my reading life.

*The book was sent to me by the generous people over at Random House, and will be available in Powerbooks after Holy Week.

On Simon Van Booy’s The Secret Lives of People in Love

Comprised of nineteen short narratives, Simon Van Booy’s The Secret Lives of People in Love offers us exactly what the title promises. Here we have narratives which concerns spirited characters who have luckily survived the tragedy of their lives only to exude a level of hope and produc an overflowing penchant to love and feel the love, fake or otherwise, of the men and women around them, which sometimes, I’m not certain if I’m ready to accept.

In the first story, Little Birds, the reader is introduced to a child protagonist celebrating his birthday. The protagonist lives with a man named Michel, a broken and scarred man (figuratively and literally) who periodically smokes cigarettes, a man who owns an adult video store in one of the dingier streets of Paris, the kind of street where Henry Miller used to stalk during his heydays as a struggling artists. As the narrative progresses, the readers are made aware of the strange relationship between the protagonist and Michel. The protagonist was accidentally (foolishly, actually) left at the train by his parents’ year ago. Michel, feeling pity, familiar with the coldness of solitude and the sting of abandonment, decided to bring the boy home as he searched for his lost family. When the search led to failure, Michel decided to care for him. When one takes the situation out of context, it is safe to assume that Michel kidnapped the boy. It’s easy to say that it will take the boy years before he could fully recover from a horrible event. The trauma will obviously make his life slightly less than bearable. Getting left behind with a stranger who happens to run an Adult Video Store, a broken man who has close ties with drunkards and prostitutes, is not a situation that can be kindly looked upon with sweetness. However, the readers are given something absolutely adverse to what they expect, something that cuts through logic. There is an almost gratuitous level of optimism in the narrative. The protagonist is content with what happened to him and he looks at his existence with, of all things, love. To him, “the key to a good life is to gently overlook the truth and hope that at any moment we can all be reborn” (2).

Most of the narratives in the collection are this way, reeking of uncompromised and distinct hope, bordering on absurdity, attempting to prove the idealistic nature of mankind. Although there is a great resistance on my part to accept such things, I also found this attempt to be refreshing and somewhat lightening. Moreover, this stance Van Booy portrays in his fiction complements his writing style. It’s perfect for his sparse sentences, his subtle tone and the overall silence and solemnity that pervades the language and type of narration employed in the telling of the story.

In reading the stories, one also sees short statements of utter illumination, “one-liners,” if one could call it that, that perfectly captures the essence of a moment in the narrative and tries to heretically summarize the insight that one story conveys. In “The Reappearance of Strawberries,” the main character, in his deathbed, ruminates on his surroundings which somehow evokes his past, particularly the tragic fate that his beloved encountered. The story goes about in narrating that:

“He observed how each raindrop united with its closest other and then, split open by its own weight, ran down the glass in one even corridor. Even after her family was killed, he did nothing—not one thing.

Without memory, he thought, man would be invisible” (12).

Another short statement of utter illumination also appears in “Some Bloom in Darkness,” early on in the story. The protagonist Sabone is revealed to be a sketch artist, and the narrative begins this revelation by saying that:

“Over the years, he had become quite skilled at sketching things. And as he aged, that he was like his sketches—that it was possible to be alive and not exist at the very same moment” (52).

Another, one of my favorites, is found in “Distant Ships.” The protagonist again remembers the terrible loss of his child Leo and like always, each scene that unfurls before him reminds him of his son. As the clock strikes three in the afternoon signalling the end of school, as the children goes into the street, he  remarks that he “would give memory—especially memory—if (he) could hold Leo again.” He then goes on to saying that “the weight of his absence is the weight of the entire world.”

Although I find the entire collection enchanting and beautiful, let me also point out that there is a certain kind of fleetingness in each story. As one reads it, one automatically becomes entirely mesmerized by its awe-inspiring beauty. Strangely enough, that effect comes to a swift end as soon as the narrative reaches its conclusion, unlike other pieces that remains with you for weeks, for months, or even for years. Could it be perhaps the optimism one finds in the narrative? Does this maybe say something about are much-loved inherent cynicism towards the world and towards existence? Are we not built to simply accept happy and hopeful endings?

*The book was sent to me by the wonderful people over at Harper Collins a couple of months back. It’s available in Powerbooks, by the way.

Well, Not Everything: On Justin Taylor’s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever

Published by Harper Perennial, Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever, which is Justin Taylor’s first collection of stories, manages to come off rather short (and don’t let me start with the utterly misleading title). I went into this collection with the hopes of being “wowed” with the narratives he has written. With a blurb from Padgett Powell that describes his stories as something that pays debt to Donald Barthelme, and pieces that possess a “strange undertow of Phillip Roth,” one cannot help but have much enthusiasm when one begins to read the works. I was fooled. Severely fooled.

Admittedly, I did enjoy the narratives, at least at some point. I was a bit amused by its hipster appeal and its characterization of the cultural movement that, for the first time in history, is suddenly thrown into a negative light. Here we have narratives that namedrop critics and philosophers like Derida, Lacan, and Nietzsche (a pastime of hipsters), stories which give cultural references to pop music icons, like The Pixies, and fictional realities where junkies, pseudo-artists, juveniles who believe that they are creating  “high-art,” anarchists who do not create any action that can be called anarchic, men and women who have open-relationships ( those who are in a “yes, we’re in a relationship, but we screw other people in various other acrobatic positions” kind of shitty setup), coke addicts, Goth girls who obsess over witchcraft, and working stiffs who try to break out of their formal and dull lives at night by getting fucked up, literally and metaphorically, exist. It’s amusing to see them. The effort made to satirize them is entertaining. It’s enjoyable to read about them, to laugh at them, to pity them, or to feel compassion for the ordeals they are going through.

The language and narration used is also something which I rather relished in. I like its contemporary feel, its sheer informal and conversational tone. It’s almost as if a friend is telling me this story, and it gives much comfort for the reader. But that’s just that. I didn’t like anything else, nor did I find anything intellectually and literarily engaging.  There’s just something, a great “something”, that lacked.

The premises are interesting, granted that. But the attack made on them is childish, and frankly, rather shallow. The characters are flat: drunken kids who stare at the bleakness of the world, lacking the intention and willpower to do something about their destitute and devestating lives, which, from a certain point of view, is not that bad. If the intention of any fiction is to highlight and explore a specific aspect of the human condition/experience, this stories barely does it.  They are initiation/coming of age stories that don’t have any initiation or grand coming of age epiphany at all. And they’re too short, just too damn short, when there is enough space to go around and explore more these characters. The stories just lack, just lack a lot of the things one looks for in a good short story or in an adequate collection.

There is a great writer somewhere inside Justin Taylor and I just hope to God this writer comes out in The Gospel of Anarcy, his first novel, which just came out earlier this year.

Vonnegut’s Lost Son: On George Saunder’s Civilwarland in Bad Decline

1. It seems that the great anxiety born out of Kurt Vonnegut’s death is finally gone, thanks to the prose narratives of Geroge Saunders. As a Vonnegut fan, I constantly wondered who will have the balls to continue what he began inn his fiction. I’ve often wondered on who will take the tremendous and somewhat dangerous responsibility on exposing the absurdities and inanities of western culture, and of the world, by poking fun at existence, at the human experience, and at the numerous idiocies men do during the time they spent here on Earth (or in Tralfamadore). Certainly, any writer from the anti-“empires,” from the other side of the world, can pursue such an anarchic project. But we always need someone from the inside who’ll have the bravado to take on the same project. That man is George Saunders. In his first collection, Civilwarland in Bad Decline: Stories and a Novella, which was previously acknowledged by the New York Times as one of the notable books that came out of 1997, George Saunders combines black humor and the other techniques of satire and yolks it with the tenets of the post-apocalyptic worlds found in Dystopian and Speculative Fiction.

2. In the title story, the first in the collection, we are given a view of a not-so-distant future overrun by murderous gangs and the theme park which they continuously raid, Civil War Land. As the name of the amusement park suggests, Civil War Land is a reserve dedicated to the preservation of one of America’s finest and most savage moments in history, the American Civil War. It is an extraordinary place where an individual can adopt an identity and be one of the characters of that period, be it may a politician, a confederate soldier, a sickly degenerate, a whore struck with a venereal disease, or even a priest, giving its visitors and patrons a unique and unforgettable perspective on a humorous time when everybody was obsessed with color and pride. Told from the point-of-view of one of the park’s administrative employees, it details the last remaining weeks of Civil War Land’s operations and the attempts of the protagonist and his boss, Mr. Alsuga, to take care of the “gang problem.”  In their desperation to revive their cash flow and stop the murders from happening, they hire an ex-criminal, a murderer, only to realize that their actions just might have fast-tracked the end of the park. What comes out is a ridiculous portrait of an individual who obsessively and quite irrationally attempts to preserve history, figuratively and literally, even at the expense of his own family, his own career and the bystanders around him; a work which exhibits the author’s penchant to explore the unspoken undercurrents of human life and exposes Saunder’s gung-ho drive to narrate the stories of individuals who find themselves at the far-end of loneliness, near the precipice of madness and nothingness.

3.  Absurdity is also of interest to Mr. Saunders. In his fourth story, The 400-Pound CEO, Saunders tackles the horror that has invaded American society in the last few decades: the problem of obesity. Jeffrey, an employee at a firm that specializes in exterminating squirrels, is perennially the butt of all jokes due to his weight and his irrepressible need to stuff himself with food. Told from his own point-of-view, it recounts his attempts to begin a relationship with Freeda, a coworker, the embarrassment he feels when the date he had with her was nothing more but a dare initiated by his office, and his anger towards Tim, his boss, who Freeda is sleeping with. Fueled by his anger, Jeffrey accidentally kills Tim and replaces him as the CEO of the extermination company, which follows  his downfall, incarceration and his wish to be born anew, an ambiguous conclusion which is part-prayer and part-suicide note. Other than the story made me quite concerned about the manner in which I eat, and besides the way the story resembles the Aristotelian framework of the Greek Tragedy, what I like about the story is that it renders the ridiculousness of present society, a silliness born out of men’s perception of what is beautiful, of what is normal and what it means to be a winner.

4. The humor tones down a bit in both Isabelle and The Wavemaker Falters, a comfort to the guffawing laughter that comes from reading Saunder’s stories. I can’t say much about the stories and I prefer not to. They’re melancholic and sad, showing that Saunder is not only skilled in the writing of satire, in making a simple witty joke that digs deep into the psyche of the contemporary man. He can evoke sadness. He knows how to show the sadness of the human spirit and the compassion inherent in all of us.

5. The real gem of this collection is the novella Bounty. Maximizing the nature of speculative fiction and the concept of dystopia, Bounty portrays a society in which all creatures with genetic deformities, mutants, in the non-X-Men and more Black Hole-ish sense of the term, are, by law, automatically slaves to those who are normal. The narrative follows Cole, one of the mutants endowed with talons on his feet, and the journey he goes through to look for his sister, Connie, who left Bounty Land, the amusement park where they have lived and worked since the government edict was decreed, to marry one of the normals.  The search takes Cole to the horrible world where he is faced the moral degradation of the hostile land he was born into, a world which mirrors how the world would look like if the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865 turned out differently. This is the most unforgettable narrative in the collection, and it’s not because of the story, but because of the rendering of the world within the narrative. In a recent panel I participated in the 3rd Taboan International Writer’s Conference, I made mention of the challenge of the author to present the entirety of a different, altered future while focusing on the plight of a single character, the protagonist. Like Burgess, like Pynchon, like Gibson, and like Huxley (That’s a lot of namedropping), Saunders has effectively presented to us a world where each and every fragment of that particular reality has been, more or less, shared to the reader. The search for Cole’s sister is interesting enough, but the world he trudges, the world he sees, the people he meets and has to fend off and betray, are the things which ultimately is what made the narrative jaw-dropping, arresting and unforgettable.

6. On to Pastoralia after a few month. Much love to Penguin/Riverhead Books for giving me the free samples.

Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories

It’s easy to forget the beauty of the long story. Hell, most people ignore its existence and presence in the tradition. It is truly enchanting, something exceptional. It does not have the restrictions and rigidness of the other popular modes. It conforms to an array of genres. Its length is adequate, satisfactory. It does not have the exhausting duration of the novel and its relentless attempts to encompass the entire life of an individual or a community, or, in the case of the novels before modernism, all of human existence (hello, meta-narrative and yes, Joyce is an exception to this claim, although I will argue that Bloom’s ordinary day in London is in fact a {re}presentation of his whole life). It does not have the briefness and fleetingness of the short story that leaves its readers satisfied but ultimately wanting more, nor does it possess the rules or norms of what the short prose narrative is supposed to be. It does not have the feeling of safety that ones gets from the novella and the novelette, its baffling form, its questionable appearance, and the lingering sense that what you are holding is simply an exhausted and stretched piece of short prose or shortened, sacrilegiously chopped novel. I have much adoration and affinity for all the forms of fiction, but the long story is different. Its protean nature, its sheer ability to adopt the techniques of the novel and the short story, and completeness is staggering, disarming. The way it says, “Screw the damn page limits and the minimum page requirements,” or “Down with breathlessness and the sprint of storytelling, the damn ‘flash of the fireflies,’ or “To hell with minimalism and the culture of restraint,” makes so much sense to me. And in this form, Alice Munro, I think, is one of the few ones who have really mastered the technique and skill to achieve everything that the long story can hope to be.

My knowledge and acquaintance with Alice Munro has been restricted to the few stories I found online and the few recent works which The New Yorker has made available in their website. I’ve never been able to read a collection. The collection which will be the focus of this review, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, along with Runaway, Lives of Girls and Women, Too Much Happiness, Open Secrets, The Progress of Love and The View from Castle Rock are perennially on my wish list, an excel file, located at my desktop, where all the books I wish to purchase are indicated. The stories that I have been fortunate to read were excellent, to say the least. Going into the collection, I was already aware of what I could look forward to from the book. But finishing the collection, after four brief days, as I tried to slip a page or two in between work, commute, school projects and extra-curricular endeavors, I was foolish to infer a prediction of what my experience would be like. Reading a collection from Munro is different, vastly and incomparably different. The emotional turmoil and sheer elation derived from reading it was not a usual occurrence. It’s something that I’ve only experienced while reading Lorrie Moore or John Updike. Certainly, I’m used to enjoying a collection. I’m comfortable with being in awe of a book. But to completely taken over, to be absolutely compelled and held by a book is a gift and a privilege. It is rare, precious, something to consider, ponder, and linger on even in the busiest moments of everyday life.

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories, is at first reading, utterly exhausting. The sheer weariness one gets from reading each story is not a criticism or an insult, of course. It is praise. As a fiction writer and a critic, it is impossible for me to read a story just to be amused or entertained or to find an insight into reality. In reading, I also take note of character development and their growth, the structural integrity of the whole narrative, the precision of the tone, the accuracy in the details rendered in both character and setting, and most of all, the language employed, the choice of words, the turn of the phrase, the length and elegance of a sentence, where the gorgeousness of the narrative resonates from. Each story in the collection is tireless in achieving perfection in each attribute. It is deeply invested in each aspect that understanding how it all works in harmony and in such equality is arduous, laborious, but worthwhile. Analyzing each story, one would not wonder why she is a master of the prose narrative, why her stories, towers over everybody else’s. Certainly, one other thing that radiates in this collection is the stories she weaves. The truths she decides to convey is breathtaking, transcended and relevant. Each story presents an emotional wasteland of such immensity and deepness, which the readers have to traverse. This emotional wasteland, I believe, is what every piece of literature aims to achieve.

The regular manner in which I do my review of prose narratives will not be sufficient. Such a rushed encapsulation of my favorite narratives, a summary of each, is an insult. It is heresy. This is not a book of biases and preference. The stories are equally excellent and awe-inspiring. Such reviews are cliché, of course, a downer, or proof that my critical eye is heavily clouded, enough reason for me to go back to criticism class or take another stab at a fiction writing workshop. But there are rare moments like this. There are rare moments when you want to find your inner Michiko Kakutani but simply cannot. There are moments when you try to find and channel the notoriousness of someone like Martin Amis but simply fail to. I love all the stories in this collection, the kind of love that will not fade away, love in every sense of the term, none of the semantic and cynical bull found in Roland Barthes discourse on love. Moreover, I want to keep each narrative preserve in an ethereal glass, untainted, uncorrupted, and eternally beautiful. And so I leave Johanna from the title story in that scene I remember, where she’s awkwardly trying on a dress in Milady’s, scared at the prospect of love, of sex, of a commitment, yet prepared to abandon her familiar life of servitude for happiness. And so I leave arrogant, frail and sickly Jinny while standing on the floating bridge, kissing a stranger, betraying all what she knows for a couple of seconds. And so I leave Nina, in front of her husband who had just committed suicide, desperately looking for a note, for a final goodbye. And so I leave Meriel, in bed with the doctor who tried to save the best friend of her husband, an accident that would haunt the rest of her life and future. And so I love all the other characters in the collection, the setting, the moods and tones, safe and uncompromised, in those four good days spent reading my battered, dog-eared, folded and post-it filled copy of the book.

The Nature of Secrets and Lies in Deborah Willis’ Vanishing and Other Stories

 

“If the study of words has taught Peter—and therefore me—anything it’s the ease of lying. Each word is a sham, a small, meaningless collection of sound that pretends to be not: cat, house, husband. All fops at a costume bowl. And everyone accepts this banter as if words, dressed in their masks and cloaks of consonants, were not pretending. We are all complicit, Peter once told me: Just by saying good morning to a neighbor, one participates in the great lie. And then, of course, there’s the pun on lying, But maybe you know this.”

-From “Traces,” (Page 72)

 

In Deborah Willis’ Vanishing and Other Stories, the reader is given the privilege to observe and explore the structure of lies and deceptions. Composed of fourteen stories, published by Harper Collins, it is a debut collection that renders masterfully the labyrinth of lies and presents how, inevitably, overtime, all secrets are uncovered, all lies are unleashed, only to invade and alter the lives of its keepers and all those who are part of the great design.

In “Vanishing,” the protagonist, Tabitha, looks to her childhood and her adolescent years to make sense of why her father, Nathan, suddenly disappeared from her family’s life. Constantly haunted by Nathan’s memory, through the volumes of plays that he wrote before his departure, Tabitha revisits the moments she spent in the attic of their home, in her father’s study, while he wrote, and the prevalent presence of Lev, a friend and colleague of Nathan, in their lives. Years go by, and Tabitha is reunited with Lev, for a few seconds, in a street, in the middle of buying groceries. And in the short time spent exchanging greetings, Tabitha arrives at a realization, which is withheld from the readers. The story concludes in a very beautiful ambiguous note, hinting that Tabitha may have already found out why her father disappeared years ago and the heartbreak behind it. But she goes on, without having to deal with the grand epiphany, participating in a lie which altered the way her life unfolded.

In “The Weather,” the broken life of a single father is given light. Left by his wife, the protagonist,  is left to take care of Edith, his only daughter. When Edith begins bringing home one of her friends, the beautiful Rae, the loneliness that he has kept at bay for so long begins to weigh down on him, strangely producing an attraction and affinity for the rebellious guest that sits at his table and wears his wife clothes. As the relationship deepens, the readers are given the remnants of the man who drove his away, and the emergence of a newer man, one that the family needed in the past.

The third story in the collection, “Escape,” we are told of the moving tale of a doctor, Tom, who just lost his wife to a terrible disease. In his attempts to deal with the tragic loss, he finds himself enthralled by the lights and the thick air of thrill and excitement inside a casino. There, Tom meets a woman in her late-forties, a black jack dealer, a woman who “runs her table with serious efficiency,” which he finds mysterious and captivating. The protagonist, as he spends night-after-night in the casino, in the black jack table, losing all his money, losing control over his life, is enamored by the woman’s hands, which to him is, “not a young woman’s hands: the skin is creased, and veins reach down her wrists like dark ropes.” Pretty soon, his addiction deepens, and spirals out of control, only to realize that the gambling and his obsession for the woman is simply nothing more but a denial of the reality he has to come to grips with after his wife’s death.

“Traces,” on the other hand, is a 2nd person point-of-view narrative that focuses on the protagonist, Mimi, directly addressing the woman who’s having an affair with her husband: us, or more appropriately, the “narrative-you.” Highly reminiscent of Lorrie Moore’s short story from Self-Help, “How to be An Other Woman,” the story follows Mimi’s attempts to discover the identity of the woman sleeping with her husband. Assisted by her neighbor and dear friend April, she visits the home of the “other woman,” observing the surroundings, immersing herself in the normality of things. Mimi steals one of the woman’s kitties, a petty revenge, just so she could feel how it is to have something stolen from her. At the end of the story, she encounters an even greater deception as she looks over towards April’s house, and returns to the other woman’s home to give the creature she stole back.

And in the poignant “Sky Theatre,” the fleetingness of beauty and youth is explored as a young woman explores her own life and future when the most popular and beautiful student in her school is suddenly put into a wheel chair after a horrible accident.

It is a debut collection enjoyable, and at time, utterly heartbreaking. The language Willis’ employs is precise and clear-cut. It does not play games nor does it reel in anguish and pain to invoke a cathartic reaction from the readers. All it intends to do is to tell the story and that is what it does. Although I appreciate this authorial gesture, this also becomes one of the minor problems of the stories. In some parts, in its strong desire to simply tell us the story, it robs us of the sensual experience we can get from the text, like the poetic feel of the locale, the seething heat of hatred or of passion or the coldness of loneliness and solitude. It sometimes run through, and does not, in the words of Umberto Eco, “linger in the fictional woods.”

The true gem of the collection can be seen in the character that inhabits its stories. Willis’ characters have the capability to become inviting, despite their mysterious and elusive nature. At the beginning of story, even with all my attempts to try and look at the text critically, I cannot help but invest in these characters. They are simple, normal, average even, therefore understandable. But their secrets, their secrets that anyone could keep, that anyone could possess, emotional, deadly, shallow, traumatic or otherwise, complicates them, makes them complex and infinitely interesting, We go along for the ride and hope we share the secrets with them. And we learn a thing or two about secrets, about how, even in the quietest of moments, in the presence of stillness, the greatest secrets, one that could destroy lives and relationships, are created. We learn that there are some truths which are better abandoned as secrets, that there are some people, like the protagonist of “Vanishing” and “Traces” who would rather feign indifference rather than face the terrible implications and repercussions of fact and reality. And we learn that, worst of all, secrets are done not just by action, but by thought. These are things that we are already aware of, of course, but to feel it, relate to it, is a gift that Willis give to us, and for this, we are grateful for her exposition.

Vanishing and Other Stories is what any author could hope for in his/her first book. It is touching, poignant, unafraid to showcase talent and explore subjects that are compellingly difficult, and most of all, adequate enough to hold the readers in her thrall, excited at the next book she will write and publish.