SHORT STORIES / The Unbearable Lightness of Being

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TALKING IN THE DARK, by Laura Glen Louis. Harcourt, 210 pp., $23.

LOVE AND MODERN MEDICINE, by Perri Klass. Mariner, 240 pp., $13 paper.

THE BRUTAL LANGUAGE OF LOVE, by Alicia Erian. Villard, 209 pp., $21.95.

FAITHLESS: Tales of Transgression, by Joyce Carol Oates.

Ecco/HarperCollins, 386 pp., $27.

BARGAINS IN THE REAL WORLD, by Elizabeth Cox. Random House, 221 pp., $19.95.

A CURMUDGEONLY friend recently complained that fiction these days lacks

morality. Morality, I thought, listening politely, is the last thing I want in

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the fiction I read. Pious moralizing will kill the pleasure in a book faster

than bad grammar. If anything, I concede that fiction is a laboratory for

morality, a safe place where it can be tested, defied and recreated.

Short stories, which so often turn on risk and epiphany, are theaters where

we exercise the most willing suspension of our disbelief. As with one-night

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stands, we tend to be less judgmental. If the characters don't behave the way

we think they ought to, why, it's only a short story. We don't have to live

with them through a novel. We don't have to marry them, for God's sake. The

motivations for their actions are sketched or intimated or nonexistent.

Likewise, the rewards or punishments for actions might take place offstage as

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well. There is simply less context in a short story.

The beauty of this is a certain weightlessness. I often feel unhinged and a

little rootless after reading short stories. (Again, the one-night stand comes

to mind.) The ugliness of this, the failure, can come from the same

weightlessness. When we judge a character, we are engaged. If we don't care

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what they do or what happens when they do it, we go to the refrigerator, or the

TV or the movies or another book. How can a short story writer give weight to

her characters without swamping the boat? Engage us in their lives without

inspiring the kind of prissy, knee-jerk judgment we try not to engage in in

real life?

"Talking in the Dark," Laura Glen Louis' first collection of short stories,

is full of silences between people. In spite of their desperation, her

characters are obedient to their fates, which spring organically from their

actions. The 19-year-old bank teller in "Fur" engages in a cynical seduction of

an elderly customer, stealing his dead wife's mink coat when she is invited to

his apartment. She becomes, in the course of the story, the kind of over-made-

up, unhappily-married-for-money woman who wants things so badly she'll do

anything to get them. In "Tea," the small rituals and movements of tea and yoga

help a woman recover from the loss of the man she thought she would grow old

with.

People are what they eat, Laura Glen Louis seems to say again and again,

they are what they want, they become what they think they desire. There is no

exterior moral compass in her stories, no true north that is not woven by the

characters themselves. It's a very calm world, more so than you'll find in the

rest of these collections. There is less hysteria. A doctor kills a young boy

after several months in a coma, a husband leaves his wife and two daughters

without explanation. The wife has an affair with her doctor. The morals evolve

along the way and are unique to the situation.

The stories in Perri Klass'new collection, "Love and Modern Medicine,"

revolve in a tighter orbit, a more rigidly defined solar system. Most are set

in or around hospitals (Klass is a pediatrician). They often involve near-death

situations and the relationships of parents to their children. A child's birth

or death or suffering is not something even the most sensitive grown-up can

prepare for. No army of morals, no religion, no behavioral code can be reliably

applied. For this reason, a reader often sees a story or two that deals with

these issues in a collection. Klass has written a whole book of them, which

produces a kind of nerve-deadening effect. The stories feel substantial, yet

familiar and unsurprising. Heroism and defiance are the ways that Klass' single

mothers and overworked doctors break out of their rigid lives. They do the

right thing in the end, they are inspired by love of their children to do the

right thing-leave the loveless marriage, not have the affair, bring the baby

home on Christmas Eve. Yay! you shout at the end of each story, with its

recognizable good and bad possibilities. She did the right thing! It's like

eating a big and satisfying meal, at the end of which you are no longer hungry.

On the other hand, "The Brutal Language of Love," by Alicia Erian, will

leave you starving. Thirteen-year-olds sleep with the kid next door, teachers

mess with their students' naive sexuality, a father refuses to help his

daughter pay for a biopsy. But it's all so light, so weightless. Nobody gets

punished, life goes on; sometimes people are mean, sometimes nice, who cares? I

thought of my curmudgeonly friend reading these stories, and I got a glimmer

of his dissatisfaction with this helium world. The victims don't perceive

themselves as victims because they appear not to understand that people

shouldn't treat them badly. For example, the fat 13-year-old in "Alcatraz" who

is repeatedly kicked by the bully who sits behind her doesn't care enough about

herself to stop him. Why should I?

Joyce Carol Oates knows that weightlessness in the world of the short story

makes an excellent vacuum for horror to fill. A reader gets disoriented and

starts scrambling around for reactions and judgments. Shall I pity this

character? Despise that one? Many of the people in her new collection,

"Faithless," are physically unlikeable; they have oily hair or overly long left

canines, for example. We feel sorry for them, but we want more than anything

to get away from them. And yet, they cling to us and to each other. At the end

of many of these stories, particularly "Ugly," about a 21-year-old waitress who

revels in her own ugliness and does not want anyone's pity, Oates has

performed the fascinating feat of making the reader dislike herself for hating

these dreadful people. It's a kind of rubber-band morality at work, one that

stretches out in the stories, filled with affairs, betrayals and guilt but

mostly self-loathing, and then bounces back, almost audibly, to snap at the

reader. If these people are so unattractive, but so carefully drawn, so human,

so like me and the people I know, the reader concludes, then I must be

unappealing as well. Not a pleasant feeling.

Of all these new collections, "Bargains in the Real World," by Elizabeth

Cox, seems the most grown-up and the most well-balanced in the

preachiness-to-weightlessness ratio. Here's how she does it: She spells out the

context for her characters' actions more carefully than she describes the

characters themselves. Life, in Cox's stories, is a string of moments, each so

different that the mix of carbon-based life forms and artifice and spirit

cannot be replicated. A woman passes a car wreck on the road and somehow knows

how to save one of the victims; a father tries to explain his imminent divorce

to his son; three people have a spiritual experience in a tent in the woods and

proceed with new understanding. The crashing atoms in these stories form new

molecules before a reader's eyes. Light is generated; understanding is

generated; tolerance is generated. "There was only one world to live in," a

character thinks in the title story, "though there were many to experience. He

spoke from the world they lived in, and never tried to explain the other."

Here's the moral: Morals must evolve from within the story. There are no

shortcuts. They cannot be superimposed upon it or they rebound, on the writer

and the reader both.

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