Satisfying fiction in short story form
By KRISTINA VALAITIS
Perry Glasser. Singing on the Titanic. Pp. 122. $11.95.
All published as the Illinois Short Fiction Series 1987 by the University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago.
If Bonnie Blair from Champaign were a writer instead of a newly minted medalist in speed skating, the short story would be her event. If short story writing were figure skating, it would be the short program in which even the perfect execution of a triple toe loop is not enough if the skater cannot create a satisfying drama in ice and air in two minutes without a wobble. Perry Glasser, Nancy Potter, Sarah Rossiter and Sara Vogan are clearly equal to the Olympic challenge of the short story form in their masterly execution of difficult moves in small spaces, with distinctive styles, creating satisfying fictions.
Glasser's characters keep trying to change places literally and figuratively. In the title story, "Singing on the Titanic," a daughter changes places with her father. Survival is the theme, lightly struck at first, when shortly after the death of her mother, a young girl takes a skiing trip with her father. When they are stranded together in the Denver airport in a blizzard for almost 24 hours, she is amazed at her father's ability to foresee the scarcity of food and comfort. Comradely, they scavenge toilet articles and liverwurst sandwiches and even try to talk a stewardess out of a pillow. His image as a survivor in the real world is foiled later in her glimpse of him, after a much-prepared-for date, "helpless" and alone in his bedroom, staring at a photo of his late wife.
Nancy Potter's characters are not comfortable with their pasts. They squirm in them as if they were wearing someone else's shoes. In the title story, "Legacies," a brother and sister come from opposite coasts to meet in Carthage, Nebraska, one week after their mother's death to "divide the spoils," "claim their inheritance," as they ironically describe their presence in the kitchen, "the ugliest room of the unattractive house" in which they were raised. This brother and sister, now devoid of any family except each other, come to realize that their ties although as thin as the elbows on their father's old suit still hold.
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Short stories function by way of sudden revelations. The epiphanies in Sarah Rossiter's stories are frequently as sudden as preemptive strikes, leaving characters as close as mother and son, father and daughter separated like two envelopes falling through one mail chute. In "Combinations," a mother and son spend six hours together on their way to his prospective school. She is cocooned in fond memories of him, her firstborn, her favorite, heightened on the brink of sending him off: "But I remember how when he was small, he liked to press his nose to mine and we would stare unblinking into each other's eyes until in silence a secret bond was formed." She is desolate when this "understanding without words," which she still feels, is atomized by her son's response to her detailed reminiscences of his childhood: "How come you never talked about the others that way? . . . The truth is you never cared for me at all."
In the title story of Sara Vogan's Scenes from the Homefront, all the men bear some relation to war. The female narrator's grandfather, U.S. Grant Vogan, believed himself at the end of his life to be Robert E. Lee; her father filled their summers with WW II facts and took the family to battlefields on vacations; her brother would not defend an undeclared war. The story offers a meditation on the place where history and fiction meet, masquerading as a family newsreel, and it hints, at Vogan's ability to create spaces that are the border between the imagined and the observed, fact and fiction. In her stories, the material and transcendent worlds collide and then coalesce as the reader learns to prefer truth, however the messenger is dressed.
Brilliant in this way is "The Crane Wife," in which an ordinary insight is made luminous. The story opens in a blizzard when Nadia, a young woman married to a man in pursuit of the news in one third world country after another, is distracted by the appearance of a large bird on her patio, apparently seeking shelter from the storm: "This black-and-white bird. . . stepped around the patio on its stilt legs. . . . It continued peering at her through the glass, cocking its head from side to side as if one eye or the other would translate what it saw into some bird knowledge or reaction."
Much to Vogan's credit, so finely observed is this messenger from the natural world that the reader is not surprised when the bird is invited in, eats food foraged for it in the refrigerator. But like the seven-foot green lizard/man in Rachel Ingalls' novella, Mrs. Caliban, this bird whether a projection of Nadia's needs or just one of nature's quirks (Don't we all hope that just one of the dinosaur eggs in the museum will hatch?) means business. When Nadia's quick research reveals that the bird is a Japanese crane, that these cranes are monogamous and that the male and female take turns raising their young, the reader knows that the husband's absence and the crane's presence are not coincidental.
When Nadia discovers in the myth of the Crane Wife the magical protection the wounded crane provides for the one who saves it, she longs for it to muffle more than the thin place her marriage has become, to comfort a loneliness more profound. Will the crane and its magical powers be waiting for Nadia when she returns from the live bait store with its dinner? It is to Vogan's credit that the reader cares and waits in anticipation, too. A perfect landing in a difficult leap.
All of these writers deserve a wider audience. They put human faces on issues addressed bureaucratically by policy or superficially in the "lifestyle pages" of our periodicals: the deterioration of relationships between men and women, between the generations and within families. These stories of particular individuals trying to make their lives help us to imagine a common life with its necessary and satisfying heterogeneity.□
Kristina Valaitis earned a Ph.D. in English at Northern Illinois University in 1974. She is still an English major at heart, although her work as editor and publications director at the Illinois Humanities Council also calls upon her wider interests: history, cultural geography, aesthetics. The IHC's representative on the READ ILLINOIS committee, she is writing the text for Illinois, a photographic essay by Gary Irving, to be published by Graphic Arts in September.
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