The stories that make up Evgenia Citkowitz’s debut collection of stories, Ether, are highly polished, linguistically refined, and superbly crafted. The language is polished to a high gloss and the stories are devoid of cliché, melodrama and easy sentiment. They aspire to be literature, and who knows—they might even succeed at that lofty task.
Despite all this, there is something missing from them. Call it passion or humanity or simply heart, but the stories here—seven of them, plus a novella that makes up nearly half the book—are simply too poised, too cagey with their emotions, to make a lasting impression. This is reading that nourishes the head rather than the heart, and as such, it feels strangely distanced from the reader.
Let’s start with the good news. These stories are serious—they’re filled with lonely people seeking to make a connection. More than one of these protagonists suffers from an inability to speak plainly about what he or she is looking for, and spends much of the story trying, in one way or another, to articulate that desire.
Citkowitz knows a good setup when she sees one, and these stories don’t lack for attention-grabbing premises. But the author is clever with withholding information, particularly at the start of the story, which draws the reader immediately into a situation which might, at first blush, be less than compelling. Opening story “Happy Love” begins with the lines, “Elizabeth chose the site: the funeral was to take place under a shock of fuschia bougainvillea at the foot of her tree…” Such an opening immediately raising questions about what’s happening and what’s already happened, and by the time those questions are answered, you’re pages in and already involved.
Other stories have similarly ambiguous, intriguing opening lines: “It could be seen through the window, standing discreetly in the corner.” Or, “The agency called this morning and I had only a couple of hours to get myself ready.”
The author can also craft a telling sentence. “When Max split at the beginning of the year, telling Candyce and Elizabeth about baby Dylan, Elizabeth cried with joy at the prospect of a half-sibling while Candyce inwardly doed.” Elsewhere, “Zora’s place was the usual mess and stinks,” while another character “said no problem and gave a tight no problem smile that was almost a shrug.”
Not every turn of phrase is so precise or successful. Citkowitz is guilty at times of overwriting, as when she describes the owner of an Italian restaurant as someone who “could be counted upon to brandish a large pepper mill and massage it over the plates, like a john masturbating a dildo.” Never mind that johns don’t typically—as far as I know—do that to dildos, or that dildos are not—as far as I know—designed for that purpose; but is that really how you use a pepper mill?
Anyhow, such transgressions are rare enough. So if the stories are intriguing and the language is on-target, then what’s not to like? Well, this is a slippery thing to codify, and a mightily subjective one as well, but I can think of no better way to describe it than to categorize these stories as the kind of of stories that make me feel stupid when I’m done reading them. They rely on what workshop teachers refer to as “gesture” to impart significance; that is, the character says or does something at a critical moment (usually near the end of the story) to suggest a psychological state or important thematic idea.
All well and good, but if the gesture is ambiguous or what it is trying to convey is unclear, then the reader may well scratch his/her head, wondering what it is they’re missing. (Arguably, this is preferable to such symbolic gestures being overly clear, in which case the story seems obvious and heavyhanded.) Most of the stories here left me scratching my head—ending either with a brief phrase of dialogue or with an action that I’m sure was supposed to indicate a psychological shift of profound importance. Darned if I know what it was though. They left me confused, but they didn’t make me feel much.
It seems unfair to judge the collection on the basis of whether or not I was smart enough to understand what I was reading, though—so I’ll stop short of saying the stories fail at what they strive to do, and say only that their beginnings and middles are, as a general rule, a lot more successful than their endings. The exception to this is, perhaps, “Ether”, the 115-page novella that occupies half of the book. “Ether” is a multistranded story that contains many of the same strengths and shortcomings as the earlier stories, only on a larger scale; featuring several interwoven stories, it is by far the most ambitious piece here and probably its most successful, as well. Given its sheer length, it manages to accrue a bit more of the heart that is lacking in the briefer pieces.
It’s a promising way to round out the collection, and a hopeful sign that Citkowitz’s strengths will translate well into novel-length stories. In the meantime, Ether is an intriguing collection for fans of smart, highly polished short fiction.
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