Collection of shorts funny, warm, unpredictable
turbances. Galchen remains as funny, warm and unpredictable in the short story form as in the novel.
Much of this collection offers portraits of lives or moments in lives, abrupt pauses, interruptions, where contradiction, contrast and loss are the reigning components. Characters’ dilemmas hinge on misunderstanding, secrecy and the general perplexity and mortification of being a human.
Galchen explores and thwarts contradiction to comic effect. (“I bought the book, but in some small attempt at dignity I didn’t read it.”) She’s also hewing possession, fetishization of “things” and specifically the emotional register of the loss of “things.” In two stories, Once An Empire and The Entire Northern Side Was Covered With Fire, for example, the loss of a fork (“Oh fork, how does it feel to be a bat?”) and a Parmesan cheese grater feature prominently. (“We had a particularly nice Parmesan grater and he had taken that. But he had left behind his winter coat. Also a child.”) It’s hard not to salute any writer who could execute an entire text so amply around a woman’s attachment to her white fork!
In The Lost Order a woman who is “not making spaghetti” receives a telephone call from a Chinese takeout customer. Rather than tell the misdialing man she is not the Chinese takeout, she becomes embroiled in the man’s order, then subsequently conflicted over failing to tell him that she is not, in fact, the Chinese takeout. Meanwhile, on the other line, her husband has lost his wedding ring and asks her to go in search of it, but, again, in the moment of arrival at the spot he may have lost it, she finds herself muted and unable to ask the security guard about it.
Instead she resolves her multiple dilemmas by overhearing two delivery people discussing their working experiences. Thus, her lack of transparency with the misdirected takeout customer and aversion to vocalizing on the lost ring, ultimately, lead her to contemplate the actual working lives of people who bring items to other people. It’s an unexpected, circuitous route to understanding, But the unexpected is precisely what Galchen thrives on.
The deadpan delivery throughout this collection manifests much chortle. In The Late Novels of Gene Hackman, a story set at a seminar in Florida, one character offers a point of clarification on the term “dog cleaning” — “With animals it’s called grooming, not cleaning. Cleaning is for carpets.”
Such deceptively bland snips speckle Galchen’s prose and tickle your ear. Q , we learn, married J’s father two years after J’s mother died. They end at a birthday party for seniors roiling in an hypochondriacal wrestling match about people they do not seem to know. The whole tale is a delightful mash-up on intergenerational neurosis and presumptions and dead-dull seminars.
These stories afford us a way inside generational dilemmas (first jobs, taxes, property ownership and lack of, on all fronts) without resorting to the vacuous ambling that infects many of the alternative offerings in this realm. The only minor stylistic tics that wobble the work are an occasional clunky transition, excessive qualifying tags in sentences, over explaining/narrating through dialogue and too many references to being a writer, the whorls of publishing, interscribe-tribe jealousy and disappointments. Meta-fictional pokes, sure, but overly obvious choices for a writer with imaginative access to so very much more.
American Innovations Rivka Galchen HarperCollins Publishers