shining the spotlight on short story collections
Fourth Estate, May 2014
“I had not always – had not even long – been a daylight ghost, a layabout, a mal pensant, a vacancy, a housewife, a person foiled by the challenge of getting dressed and someone who considered eating less a valid primary goal”
I knew from reading several of these stories in the New Yorker that I would enjoy Rivka Galchen’s collection, but I wasn’t prepared for how I would devour it – half the stories in one sitting, something I never, ever do – and how much I loved it. If I enjoy a short story collection that usually means I adore many of the stories, but as individual works. This book I enjoyed, devoured, as a whole, a single entity, which, to me anyway, is a rare thing, especially for one not labelled as linked or themed in any way.
What is it that I was so drawn to? The phrase that keeps coming to mind is that Galchen excels at a kind of taut, structured looseness – and that contradiction is deliberate. She makes such fluidity look easy but it’s not simple to pitch something precisely on the edge of clarity and chaos. Let me give you as an example the opening paragraph of the book, from the first story, The Lost Order.
I was at home, not making spaghetti. I was trying to eat a little less often, it’s true. A yogurt in the morning, a yogurt at lunchtime, ginger candies in between, and a normal dinner. I don’t think of myself as someone with a ‘weight issue’, but I had somehow put on a number of pounds just four months into my unemployment, and when I realized that this had happened – I never weigh myself; my brother just said to me, on a visit, ‘I don’t recognize your legs’ – I wasn’t happy about it. Although maybe I was happy about it.
Actually, this is half the first paragraph, and already here if there are ‘rules’ for short story openings, Galchen seems to be breaking them with her apparent meanderings, her wordiness. Yet, she is setting this story up perfectly. Eight of the ten stories here are in the first person and they could be seen, if you squint a little, as sort of being the same character, or a similar set of people. And one of the things that echoes across many of the stories is the not-doing of things (‘not making spaghetti’) and this apparent indecisiveness: ‘I wasn’t happy about it… although maybe I was happy about it’. That’s one of the things I loved, Galchen’s embrace in her fiction of a sort of existential uncertainty, a truth about how it is often inside our heads – or perhaps just in mine!
She doesn’t do neat endings, no epiphanies here, much is left unexplained, which is the kind of story I like. Each story left me altered, it created such a strong atmosphere, I felt and tasted it, I was right inside her world. The first story, were I to sum up the plot, would appear mundane, centring around a newly-unemployed woman who doesn’t really do all that much, but it brings in so many ideas of usefulness, of society, of love and marriage, of relations between ourselves and others. Other stories deal with more surreal subject matter, such as time travel and (in a separate story) what happens if you witness all your belongings exiting from your apartment unaided. One story tells of a mother and daughter entirely through their finances (Sticker Shock), which some might call gimmicky but which worked for me.
There are some stories which strike me as potentially autobiographical, which is always the trap the reader of fiction has to watch out for, because in my opinion it shouldn’t matter. But of course, somehow, it does. Wild Berry Blue begins:
This is a story about my love for Roy, thought first I have to say a few words about my dad, who was there with me at the McDonald’s every Saturday, letting his little girl, I was maybe nine, swig his extra half-and-halfs, stack the shells into messy towers. My dad drank from his bottomless cup of coffee and read the paper while I dipped my McDonaldland cookies in milk and pretended to read the paper. He wore gauzy striped button-ups with pearline snaps. He had girlish wrists, a broad forehead like a Roman, a terrifying sneeze.
Although this might be ripped apart in a creative writing class (‘Why tell us it’s a story about Roy and then go off somewhere else? Who is our narrator?’), I defy anyone not to want to read on – especially with the fabulous combination of her dad’s qualities given in the last line.
All the stories have a dream-like feel to them, which, once again, I like very much. For me, the tone and style worked seamlessly with the content – Galchen is attempting to convey the inherent instability of everything we take for granted – jobs, husbands, parents, furniture, the space-time continuum and our ideas about our own identity. She had me hooked from the opening line.
Read The Last Order from this collection in the New Yorker
About the author: Rivka Galchen received her MD from Mount Sinai School of Medicine, having spent a year in South America working on public health issues. Her fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Believer, Harper’s, The New Yorker, Scientific American and The New York Times. Her first novel, Atmospheric Disturbances was published in 2008. American Innovations is her first collection.
About the reviewer: Tania Hershman is the founder and former editor of The Short Review. She is the author of two short story collections, and co-writer of the forthcoming Writers & Artists Companion to Short Story Writing.