This was a year of short stories, of picking up a book around midnight, when common sense dictated I should have been asleep, and refusing to set it down until two or three, at which point there was basically no hope of salvaging the following morning. This year was too hectic for grand scopes and labyrinthine plots. If I was lucky, those few evening hours in which I got to read wiped out the detritus of the workday, replacing them with voices and characters that scattered at the sound of my phone’s alarm. For a while I’ve thought that short stories, more so than other forms, are perfectly suited to adult life, if only because they accomodate the low-level amnesia of the stressed. The chronically busy person reads Alice Munro, say, and gets her brief hit of human frailty, which she then takes with her to the post office, or the doctor, or dinners packed with relatives.
I needed dependably good work, in other words, which is why, back in May, I picked up the latest Rivka Galchen book, American Innovations, on the morning it came out. (On Kindle, mind. I haven’t camped out for anything since I was young enough to hoard Transformers.) In 2010, just before the end of my post-college underemployment, The New Yorker released its 20 under 40 list, which included several authors I was already a little bit obsessed with. I read through the entire collection in the space of a week, envying the skills on display in the entries by Karen Russell and Wells Tower, among others. But it wasn’t until I got to “The Entire Northern Side was Covered with Fire,” Galchen’s perfect tale of a pregnant writer whose husband has left her, that I felt too dazed to go through with my schedule of planned errands and tasks. Written in the looping, contradictory sentences of a very smart person in shock, the story is tragic and wry, unveiling the deceptions of the narrator’s husband through a series of confessions by her friend. When I was finished, I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t heard of this writer, who understood with a rare clarity how the mind tries to reckon with turmoil.
That piece, with slight modifications, appears in American Innovations, as do several other examples of first-class work. A remarkable thing about the collection is how well it captures the messiness at the heart of civilized life. In “The Region of Unlikeness,” a woman who befriends two odd, pretentious strangers comes to realize, after hearing one of them detail his eccentric view of space-time, that one or perhaps both of her new friends are painfully, incurably disturbed. In “Wild Berry Blue,” a woman meets a gyro shop worker who looks exactly like her dead father, inspiring reflections on “the vast distances between nuclei and electrons.” In all the book’s stories, the mysteries of science and philosophy, of meticulously organized attempts to find order in a baffling universe, are kin with garden-variety moments of unreality. They incite a sense that bewilderment is the sanest reaction to the world.
Of course, I read other things, too. These included Flying to America, a posthumous collection of characteristically wacked-out Donald Barthelme stories, as well as The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, which can function as a bible for a certain kind of person. (I am that kind of person.) And I also read more stories by Barry Hannah, the freewheeling, half-drunk uncle I always wish I’d had. But none of these books, great though they were, occupied me in quite the way that American Innovations did. As one of the book’s characters puts it, “there’s your life, and then you get a glimpse of the vastness of the unknown all around that little itty-bitty island of the known.”
That island is where I live. That island is where all of us live. Let’s not kid ourselves about how far out we can see.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.