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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.