There is a impenetrable facade cast over Ramona Ausubel’s latest short story collection, A Guide to Being Born. Like a thick fog off a seaport, her collection is a picturesque scene despite its limited scope and journeying into the fog is exhilarating at first, but blinding later. Ausubel’s collection is gorgeously executed but narratively smothered. Each story an intriguing scene, but the collection is pregnant with expectation that infrequently materializes.
Ausubel’s stories can all be summarized in one line; maybe two. When shrunk down to their most basic, the essence of her plots read like magazine features. “Poppyseed” examines a couple’s relationship with their mentally disabled daughter; “Atria” details a teen’s visceral visions of giving birth to animals; in “Welcome to Your Life and Congratulations” a young boy handles the fallout of the death of his cat and his parents’ inadequacies; and “Magniloquence” is a hazy dream of a college professor who mourns his dead wife. And so the subjects go, all of them fitting into Ausubel’s demarcated sections—exactly four sections (phases, really): Conception, Gestation, Birth and Love.
All of these sections contain stories that peripherally and metaphorically address life’s stages. Some stories tackle the subjects directly as in the case of “Atria” and “Catch and Release” where the story’s subjects are intensely affected by the process of birth. But Ausubel, a writer with fantasy-laced realist persuasion, opts instead to allow us, the reader, to impose our own cyclical definitions upon the stories.
This works well in some places, and not so, well in others. Giving the reader freedom to draw their own lines from point to point is freeing, and yet, we go into stories looking for thematic associations when maybe there shouldn’t be any. There’s no mistaking that Ausubel can string a yarn of words together to create gold. Her sentences are fluid and tight, descriptive pinpricks of adjectives and descriptors. (“Those lines on the port side, where the wind is coming from, are pasted to the hull like clinging lizards,” and “Her body was buzzing like it was full of a new substance: not blood anymore but something rattling and dry.”) Her prose is so fluid you get the sense that it might slide right off the page if you avert your eyes, even for second.
And yet, never during the course of A Guide to Being Born‘s quick 196 pages does Ausubel ever lose control of its flow. In fact, it’s her prose that keeps less plot-driven stories like “Safe Passage” and “Saver” from sinking under their own malaise.
Ausubel’s strength as a writer of short stories comes from her delicate prose. But as she pours the liquid of her prose into one measuring cup, the plot balancing cup runs empty from time to time. “Poppyseed”, “Chest of Drawers” and “Tributaries” are all intriguing stories for about five or six pages, until the initial luster wears thin and the premise (often built around oddity or magical realism) gives way to feverish images that aren’t always sustainable. The mother and father in “Poppyseed” are relatable in their actions—the mother writes to her mentally disabled daughter in a diary, the father takes a promotion as a head tour guide aboard a ghost ship to provide for his family’s increasing medical bills - -but also startlingly unrelatable by the story’s end. What should be catharsis for the couple, and simultaneously for the reader, gives way to inherent sadness and unresolved plot points that linger heavily.
Ausubel’s stories don’t have easy endings; most of them are messy and unresolved, some are questionable in their outcome, and nothing is explicitly defined—not even birth or death are absolutes (e.g., “Safe Passage”, “The Ages”). But there’s a maddening lack of consolation by the collection’s end, which is, more often than not, uncomfortable to reconcile with. Not all stories have to make the reader comfortable or tidy up the messes that characters are entangled in. Most short fiction doesn’t offer simple endings, nor should it. But from the outset, Ausubel imbues a sense of fulfillment in most of her stories, which makes the others that lack it feel that much weightier.
The stories that fare the best in A Guide to Being Born are the ones that utilize humor in strange and fantastical ways: the Civil War general playing catch with Buck in “Catch and Release”, the insanity of the family in “Snow Remote” (not to mention the excellent use of cursing by the characters), Annie’s total acceptance of her husband, Ben’s, physical deformity in “Chest of Drawers”. Ausubel can twist an unbelievable premise into a believable one in a few paragraphs and have you wanting more by the story’s end. What A Guide to Being Born can’t do, right now, is sustain itself from start to finish, birth to death.