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For a number of years now the appearance of new work by Rivka Galchen in our best magazines is an event in the literary world. People talk about it on Twitter and share any links to on-line work. This book shows why and then some. Galchen’s prose is that rarest of doves, sui generis, product of a unique and feeling and uncompromising and original mind. The premises for her stories — for example answering a wrong number where someone has dialed thinking they’re ordering from a Chinese restaurant, and then taking the order — are often the kinds that perhaps a handful of writers might imagine; the stories, however, are emphatically singular. David Foster Wallace was like this. Helen DeWitt is like this. Think Murakami. Kafka. Indeed, American Innovations could not have a better title for Galchen’s new book of short stories; she truly is one of the high innovators of fiction working in this country at this historical moment.
Ten stories in this collection: according to the back cover, each is in conversation with some canonical short story (The Lost Order, for example, the book’s opening piece, reimagines Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty). All these stories do it with a female twist, giving us female heroines. My guess is, if you get the references or meta-conversational part of the stories, great, an already yummy cake gets a meta-layer of knowing and delicious icing. However, if, like this reviewer, you’ve never read The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, nor many of the original inspirations for these remixes, it matters not a whit, your enjoyment of the stories on their own merits will be plenty rich. “The Lost Order,” begins
I was at home, not making spaghetti. I was trying to eat a little less often, it’s true. A yogurt in the morning, a yogurt at lunchtime, ginger candies in between, and a normal dinner. I don’t think of myself as someone with a “weight issue,” but I had somehow put on a number of pounds just four months into my unemployment, and when I realized that this had happened — I never weigh myself, my brother just said to me in a visit, “I don’t recognize your legs” — I wasn’t happy about it. Although maybe I was happy about it. Because at least I had something that I knew it wouldn’t be a mistake to really dedicate myself to.
That first half of the first paragraph, in a fashion that is somehow seductive and deft (Galchen’s sentences and paragraphs invariably end up being carnivals of fun), lays the groundwork to establish our narrator as maybe the not most reliable egg. Still, on page one she answers a call to her home, a wrong number from someone who, yes, thinks they are ordering Chinese take-out. Our erstwhile heroine takes that call and betrays nothing. Bizarre and intriguing, surreal, and fun, the piece could easily turn to slapstick. Instead, we gradually discover that our narrator is having a bit of a personal crisis, that both her career and marriage might be at a crossroads, and that she might not know herself at all. This is writing that is uncompromising in its intellectual mission, but at the same time, takes pains to keep its readers invested, caring even.
Another story. “The Region of Unlikeliness. ” A woman meets two older men at a diner; she falls in love with one, is revolted by the other; in the course of the story we learn the man she’s in love with may have travelled through time and be her son; the man she is revolted by may end up being her future husband, the beloved son’s father. Heavy mathematical principles and terms get thrown around. There’s also this dilly of a sentence: “I was accustomed to using a day planner and eating my lunch alone in fifteen minutes; I bought my socks at street fairs. ” Like “The Lost Order,” and a number of the pieces in this collection, “Region” first appeared in the New Yorker. “Sticker Shock” gives us a woman argues with mother about money from a sold house; “Wild Berry Blue” has a woman missing her dead father while telling the story of her girlhood desires’ awakening, via her first crush, on a heroin addict of a McDonalds worker; in “Once an Empire,” a woman comes home from the movies to discover all of her belongings are heading, of their own accord, down the fire escape. The magical stories still very much capture a slice of life, even as they send you beyond the outer regions of possibility (indeed, some do dance with the infinite). In two pieces, a mother causes all kinds of neurotic stress. Others have failing or failed marriages. More than one story mentions a dead father (as such, when we see a father’s care for his daughter in “Wild Berry Blues, it informs so much) and more than another one includes a palpable desire for a baby. Many are shaded with a sense of mourning, or that something huge and bad has just happened.
The more of American Innovations you read, the more apparent it is that these pieces, for all their flashy premises, are very much about internal lives in chaos, each of the woman in these stories are in some sort of crisis, less caught in a burning building than a life that has flamed out of control. They are going through something, and, it is equally apparent, these crises are not going to end with the end of the story. The stories in American Innovations may use irony, they may creep emotions between lines and paragraphs; but make no mistake are deeply, emphatically felt. Most of the time they are breathtaking. Their sum total, indeed, will knock you for a loop.
I'm surprised to not like this collection more. I like quirky but I couldn't get excited about many of the stories.Published 2 months ago by Patty Jenkins
These are not so much stories as they are a series of loosely linked abstractions. Galchen's characters all have the same off-kilter way of looking at the world, and each story is... Read morePublished 3 months ago by Thomas M Bechtold
While I found these stories interesting, the author had not written them with the traditional beginning, middle, and ending. Read morePublished 3 months ago by Dixie Tucson
Rivka Galchen composes with heart, brain, wit and imagination. Like her wonderful novel "Atmospheric Disturbances", these stories attend to modern dilemmas without falling... Read morePublished 4 months ago by Denise F. Eliot