Collection of shorts funny, warm, un­pre­dictable

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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

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