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Alone with You

Marisa Silver

(Simon and Schuster; US: Apr 2010)

Marisa Silver’s short stories share the same flaw. All want to be novels. When they realize they are bursting the bounds of their form, they shut themselves down abruptly, not even permitting themselves the airy stretch of a novella.


This isn’t to say the stories in Along With You are bad. They’re not. The book begins slowly, the weaker stories in front, as if traversing a writer’s arc from a younger talent to a fully realized artist. 


Those first stories—“Temporary”, “Leap”, and “The Visitor”—are engaging, but none seize the reader as the later stories do. Temporary sets a pattern that recurs in each story, setting up parallel events so the past unexpectedly echoes the present or one set of characters contrasts with others. Vivian, a young woman from a small town in Okalahoma, has recently moved to Los Angeles, where she is gently scandalized by her wealthy roommate, Shelly. Shelly, with her vaguely familiar last name, doesn’t need to work. Vivian has a temp job at an adoption office, transcribing taped interviews of prospective parents. Vivian is adopted herself, and the work absorbs her even as the desperation of the interviewees baffles her. She then goes home to observe Shelly, who is serious about nothing but frivolity.


In “Leap,” the pubescent Sheila and her sisters are selling lemonade. A man pulls up and tries to lure one of the girls to a nearby shed to help him “change clothes”. Sheila’s older sister, Trudy, aggressively deters the man, upsetting Sheila, who was experiencing a rare moment where her sister wasn’t “pressing down on Sheila’s soul as if she were a thumbtack.”


From here the story cuts to Sheila’s adult life. She is in her late 30s, recovering from bypass surgery. Her marriage is as fragile as her heart; before the heart attack Sheila learned her husband, Colin, had an affair. The couple are stepping carefully, trying to rebuild their marriage, or so Sheila thinks, until clarity hits her like a bolt, as they are, prosaically enough, unloading groceries.


The domestic is never far from Silver’s stories; they are the backdrop against moments both quiet and enormous, revelations about loved ones in the driveway, as one works. In “The Visitor”, Candy, an aide in a Veterans Hospital, is unmoved by the grotesque wounds she tends and the ghost who haunts the apartment she shares with her aging grandmother. As Candy spends her days implacably cleaning and rewrapping the horribly damaged boys coming home from Iraq, her grandmother sews wedding gowns. Both women mend and repair, but both are powerless against the ghost of Candy’s mother, Marjorie, a lifelong drug addict who finally overdosed. Nor can Candy ignore her grandmother’s own aging, most poignant in her increasingly stiff, arthritic hands. 


In “Three Girls”, the book’s tension begins an inexorable climb upward. Jean, Connie, and Paula are the highly functioning children of negligent, alcoholic professors. When a freak snowstorm brings a stranded family to their door, their lives are thrown into stark relief: the filthy household, their parents’ inappropriate behaviors, the stranded family’s own three daughters, mockingly perfect mirrors in their matching ski hats and clean ski gear.


Of all the stories in Alone, the jarring “Pond” demands most strongly to be a novel. Julia and Burton have one daughter, Martha. At age twenty-four, Martha has the mentality of a six-year-old. A six-year-old who managed to sneak into a closet at the adult care center and get impregnated by a young man with Down’s Syndrome. The resulting story, seen first from Julia’s viewpoint, then Burton’s, is shocking and saddening. Though Martha’s child, Gary, is normal, the reversals—the grandchild who watches his mother carefully, understanding without truly comprehending something is amiss, the aging parents burdened with a lifetime of care for an adult incapable of caring for herself—is completely absorbing, until it comes to what struck this reader as an abrupt and unfinished close. In defense of the characters, perhaps there is no real close to such a story.


“Night Train to Frankfurt” appeared in the New Yorker, effectively making Silver’s name as a writer. Helen and her mother, Dorothy, have traveled from the United States to Germany so Dorothy may attempt an experimental cancer treatment. Helen, a failed concert pianist, is mystified by her usually practical mother, who would normally dismiss such procedures as folly. But as the pair ride all night on the train of the title, Helen has ample time to reflect on her rather small life, with a practical, philandering boyfriend she doesn’t truly love, her music students, her work as a page turner at the Philharmonic. None of it adds up to much in the face of her mother’s suffering. Practical, implacable Dorothy is dying, shrinking in front of her daughter, barely able, when the train arrives, to disembark. 


“Into the New World” is another of the book’s strongest pieces. Tomasz and Eliana are Polish immigrants to California. Tomasz has established a construction business; Eliana is a nurse. When their Americanized son, Teo, rather insolently informs them he has gotten a girl pregnant, Tomasz is enraged. It is difficult to say whether the act or Teo’s bored manner angers him more, but Tomasz strikes Teo, breaking his arm. Eliana takes over, practical and calm, shepherding the two hysterical males through the hospital and potential abuse claims. 


Tomasz’s act creates an uncomfortable intimacy: he must help his son bathe, and silently accompanies him to the abortion clinic, where the girl ignores both of them. Meanwhile, he is at work shoring up a house intent on sliding down the hillside: the owners are a man and his heavily pregnant wife. It’s easy to imagine literature professors having a field day with this one: immigration, the uneasy relationships between the wealthy and those they hire to shore up their sliding lives, the tensions between immigrant parents and their American children, the two pregnancies, each meeting an unhappy ending. 


In “Alone With You”, Marie is home from the hospital, recovering from a nervous breakdown.  The story is reminded me of A Woman on the Verge, if Gena Rowlands’s character had truly recovered enough to escape. Marie proposes the family take a trip on a camel trek. Husband and son are wary, even gently patronizing. Marie’s illness has opened a crevasse neither husband nor son can bridge: their regard for her, and cautious questions about her well being, fall into this crevasse. Marie, who needed the distant unfamiliarity of desert vistas to be certain of this, now calmly plans her future. 


The very thing that makes short stories pop, their streaking snapshots of lives—are well represented here. The strengths of Alone With You exceed its weaknesses, and the collection deserves attention from those who remain devoted to short fiction.

Rating:

Diane Leach has a Master's Degree in English Literature from Humboldt State University. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New Mobility, and The Collagist. She can be reached at dianesleach@gmail.com.


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29 Sep 2008
Silver took the vital ingredients of a regional novel and composed an L.A. tale, but set many miles east -- at the edge of the desolate Salton Sea -- a wasteland that would have held tremendous appeal to T.S. Eliot.
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