[29 May 2014]
At the end of the epigraph (by Robert Ardrey) in Ellen Gilchrist’s Acts of God it reads: “The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk, but how magnificently he has risen.” This optimism is at the heart of Gilchrist’s newest collection of short stories.
As someone late to her work, I was initially attracted to Acts of God due to my penchant for short fiction and dangerous weather – a combination that is obvious when looking over the book for the first time. However, while the stories share the common thread of natural disasters – tornadoes, hurricanes, terrorist threats, accidents, and illness – all of these “acts of God“ are secondary to the characters and their tenacity in the face of crisis.
The ten stories that make up Acts of God include tales about teenagers finding a baby boy in the wreck of a tornado; stranded passengers in Heathrow coming together in the wake of a terrorist attack; a couple rekindling their waning love affair after helping victims in a hospital hit by Hurricane Katrina; and a terminally ill woman devising her own spectacular death.
More than once, the book addresses the ethics of suicide and terminal illness. In “The Dissolution of the Myelin Sheath”, the protagonist, a wealthy glamorous maven named Philipa decides to end her life before Multiple Sclerosis can disable her. She leaves her husband a note that reads: “I cannot be an invalid. I cannot be an old, sick, dying person.”
Similarly in “Jumping off Bridges into Clear Water“, a man named Jimmy diagnosed with polio also toys with the idea of ending his life. These people are well past middle age, but are still blessed with good looks and, up to this time in their lives, good fortune, and want to walk out of life with as much self-respect as they possibly can.
In the title story, an elderly couple named Will and Amelie, while not terminally ill, feel bound by the fact their children have hired a “sitter” to look after them. One of the duties of the sitter is to make sure Will and Amelie don’t try to get behind the wheel of their car.
When they break free and take a joy ride to the grocery store and around the block on a “sun-drenched Saturday morning“, the results are disastrous. After they crash their car, Will looks up just before he dies to see a boy who witnesses the crash. He tells him: “There’s ice cream in the back seat, Little Buddy. Be sure someone puts it in the freezer.” It’s as if Gilchrist (who is in her 70s) is reminding us that what we choose to do in the face of aging and disease may shorten our lives even more but may also preserve our dignity.
Another issue that seems to be on the minds of Gilchrist’s characters is memory. In “Miracle in Adkins, Arkansas” protagonist Marie, who rescues a baby after a tornado, reveals her preoccupation with how fleeing memory is and that of all the moments we have in life, we are only able to hang on to a few handfuls. She realizes it takes big events like finding a baby in a tornado to remain in one’s memory for years to come.
“I don’t want all my memories lost in some fog like most people’s are,“ Marie thinks. “I am capturing mine every chance I get.” Similarly in the title story, the son of Will and Amelie thinks to himself after their death, “There is much we know that we forget… so much goodness we must strive to remember.”
There are moments in these stories that teeter on cliché, but Gilchrist is so adroit at getting to the heart of each of her skillfully written characters that she has earned her platitudes. She has also had a prolific career that is comprised of over 20 books, including novels, books of poetry, short story collections, and a memoir. Additionally, she has a National Book Award under her belt awarded for her collection of short stories, Victory over Japan, written in 1984. It’s safe to say at this point, Gilchrist knows what she’s doing.
Many of Gilchrist’s characters have lived in her previous short fiction collections. One of these characters is Rhoda Manning, a salty 67-year-old woman who is a writer and said to be Gilchrist’s alter ego. In “The Dogs”, Manning pens a letter to her new neighbors, asking them to keep their dogs quiet while she is sleeping. Her letter blows up into a neighborhood epistolary feud that includes lawyers and references to The Sopranos. It’s the most entertaining and only humorous story in the collection and stands alone in this respect.
An example of this unexpected humor can be found in the letter Manning writes to an old friend at the end of the story. She is listing things she would do if she were to get cancer. Her list includes “fuck one of my old boyfriends’ and “charter a plane and fly somewhere to watch Andre Agassi play tennis.”
Life is short, and Gilchrist is here to remind you of it. Acts of God is a straightforward and passionate meditation on making the most of the time we are given. Philipa from “The Dissolution of the Myelin Sheath“ sums it up best when she tells the reader: “It does not matter how long you live… It only matters that you love it while you’re here.”