Monday, April 26, 2010
For the past several months, I’ve been carrying on a love affair with the short story. I’m generally predisposed toward novels but these days, given the chaos of modern life, it may be a day or two (or, admittedly, longer) before I have time to settle in again, at which point, I’m out of sync with the pacing and often need a good memory jog to keep moving forward. Then there’s the battle to stay awake for more than 20 pages. The short story is a fine alternative. It's compatible with my bedtime reading, but also with the all-too-brief minutes of free time throughout the day. Really, it's a perfect and immediate literary fix when done well.
And then there’s the case of when it’s done exceptionally well, like with Marisa Silver’s stunning new collection “Alone With You,” a title that holds both the possibility of shared-breath intimacy as well as the most profound kind of loneliness, a subtle foreshadowing of what lies beneath the cover. This reading is not light emotional fare and while her stories are riveting, they deserve slow and concentrated dedication.
Silver (“The God of War” and “Babe In Paradise”) presents readers with eight beautifully written stories that tug at the complex knot of human relationships and with incredible insight, hone in on the dark, unnamed spaces that so often coexist with love. Silver has a gift for making palpable the discord, her characters all the while remaining sympathetic.
In “Leap,” Sheila, a high school counselor, whose dog tries to commit suicide, comes to terms with her husband’s infidelity, confessed over dinner moments before she has a heart attack. At the end of a counseling session with a student named Morton (“He was a long angular boy who wore his hair across one eye like a slash of black felt pen marking a grammatical error.”), Sheila thinks: “Perhaps it would frighten him to know that it was possible to be okay and not okay at the same time, that a thing—a dog, say or yearning—could only exist alongside the possibility of its absence.”
A thing and its absence is a common thread running through Silver’s stories. In “The Visitor,” a nurse’s aide cares for a soldier who is “three-quarters gone,” and faces ghosts of her own: “She knew about collateral damage, knew that injuries people saw were never the gravest.” In this story, as well as several others, Silver explores the tension and delicate balance of the mother-daughter relationship.
“Pond,” is especially compelling since the daughter, Martha, is 9-months pregnant and a mentally challenged adult. But the story’s momentum hinges on Martha’s philandering father, Burton, who accepts responsibility for the fallout of his life after leaving Martha’s mother. Burton’s plain recognition of his failures, plus his effort to reconcile his feelings for his daughter and grandson, sting like a freshly scraped knee.
Silver depicts the universal experience and dangers of love without being predictable or judgmental, moralistic or corny. She seems to let her flawed yet tender protagonists navigate their way through their lives, making their choices and attending to the consequences. I loved all of Silver’s characters.
If I had to pick a favorite story in this collection, I couldn’t. Each one lived up to that which preceded it, each one filled with passages worthy of re-reading and quoting here. The writing is superb and Silver’s insight into the human heart is like pinpoint lighting on a masterpiece.