Skillful stories would be better if they let a little sunshine in

From the book jacket
From the book jacket
Posted: June 20, 2010

Stories

By Marisa Silver

Simon & Schuster. 164 pp. $22


Reviewed by Frank Wilson


Those who have read Marisa Silver's wonderful 2008 novel The God of War may feel disappointed if they pick up this new collection of stories. War has its share of sadness and hurt, but they resolve into a sense of redemption largely absent in Alone With You.

From Vivian and Shelly in "Temporary," who live uneasily together in downtown L.A. in "an industrial space that belonged, nominally, to a ribbon factory," to Candy, the nurse's aide in a VA hospital in "The Visitor," whose newest patient is a seriously maimed serviceman who glowers fiercely and refuses to speak, to Marie in the title story, who is recovering from a breakdown and persuades her husband and son - and her son's girlfriend - to join her on a trip to the Sahara, the people inhabiting these stories lead lives of joyless desperation.

At least, this is so of the women. The men, while not exactly hale, hearty, and well met, do seem at times a tad less morose. The exception is Tomasz, the Polish immigrant in "In the New World." He's just like the women in the other stories. His wife, on the other hand, is maybe the most common-sense and matter-of-fact character in the book.

Probably the best story - certainly the one nearest in spirit to The God of War - is "Pond," which opens with the pregnant, 24-year-old Martha announcing to her mother, Julia, that "I'm too young to have a baby, that's for sure . . . I'm just a baby myself."

She is not exactly exaggerating. Julia is sitting "in the child's inflatable play pool they had kept all these years along with the dollhouse and the E-Z Bake Oven Martha had not grown out of." Burton, a math professor, rounds out this odd domestic trio. Burton sees "only the good in Martha's behavior." Eventually, he will leave Julia, but every summer he takes Martha and her son Gary to a cabin in the Sierras for a week's vacation. It is on one of these trips that something happens to cause Burton to realize that he "could not live without" Martha, "could not have lived without her."

This is among the few affirmative moments in the book (another occurs at the end of "Night Train to Frankfurt," when Dorothy, the cancer-stricken mother hoping desperately for a cure, arrives at the clinic where "they were going to boil [her] blood." Instead of letting Helen, her daughter, help her walk, "Dorothy drew herself up, somehow guided back to herself by her daughter's confidence, and started forward on her own."

Most often, though, these tales resolve into a recognition that is peculiar, indeed. Sheila, in "Leap," for example, when she learns her husband is leaving her, wonders, "How could she have known that the bad thing she would never recover from would be love?" Yet, not long after, Sheila is "feeling suddenly happy, her heart full of radiant possibility." Why? Because "there was so much time between now and eventually. There was so much trouble yet to come." Talk about cherishing your discomfort zone. Most of us, surely, are made happy in ways different from this.

Still, there is nothing false or contrived here. The stories are all well-written, sharply observed, and insightful ("so much time between now and eventually" is a wonderful phrase). And, let's face it: There are plenty of people exactly like these characters.

Nonetheless, it must be said, there is also monotony at work here, a lack of variation in tempo, like a suite of funereal adagios, that in the end proves oppressive. Every story opens in a minor key and you just know that there is no exhilaration to come.

Silver the short-story writer needs to lighten up. She has a sharp eye, and a way with a phrase. But she ought to try looking at something else for a change. Or at least look at things from a different angle. It ain't all that bad out there.


Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor. Visit his blog, "Books, Inq.-The Epilogue." E-mail him at presterfrank@gmail.com

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