Paul Yoon’s new collection, “The Mountain,” is not what you’d call delightful — the stories are sober and the prose is quiet, yet in that is the howling of the human condition that makes the best short fiction stand out. Only six stories long, it is also a small collection and an almost unfailingly tight one from Yoon, author of the short story collection “Once the Shore” and the novel “Snow Hunters.”
In the first story, “A Willow and the Moon,” the narrator remembers his childhood in upstate New York, where his mother worked at a sanitarium after World War I and liberally partook in of her patients’ morphine. He remembers a man named Henri Loze; years later, after he has been part of another world war, the narrator meets Loze’s daughter at the long-abandoned sanitarium, which she is visiting in memory of her father, who became a painter after his convalescence.
This kind of chance meeting occurs in several of the stories. In fact, chance plays a large part in Yoon’s characters’ lives. In “Still a Fire,” set in France soon after WWII, one of the main characters, Mikel, is the sole survivor of a mine explosion that killed his friend Artur. Mikel’s nurse (a morphine addict, like the mother of the narrator in the first story) finds a strange path to sobriety with Artur’s brother (who is a painter as well) in the shantytown Mikel once inhabited.
The characters peopling these pages share certain commonalities: as children, most were raised by one parent, with the other dying or abandoning the family; their adulthood is full of nostalgia for childhood intimacy; their shaky memory is impeded by sometimes unspecified trauma; and their friendships are rare and tend to end violently.
This is where much of the drama in these stories occurs: rippling, under the surface, in that quiet desperation for safety.
It is the trust exchanged with strangers that often carries the emotional weight in these stories. Such moments of recognition are occasionally founded on some actual shared history, but not always; in “Galicia,” for instance, a woman named Antje works as a hotel maid in present-day Spain and a guest startles her while she’s cleaning. A few days later, when she is waiting for her husband to return from a business trip, she meets the guest again, and he says, “There you are!” as if he had been waiting for her all along. And she, in her anxiety over her husband not showing up and the rift between them, takes a leap of faith and accompanies this stranger to Galicia. Leaps of faith are also common to many characters, as is a certain trust in strangers to help them get to where they need to go.
In the title story, “The Mountain,” a woman named Faye is homeless in South Korea until she is recruited by a man who mysteriously tells her to “come back home.” The job she is recruited for is factory work in Shanghai, where she connects with several other characters, but ultimately, it’s the man who originally rescued her from the street — who is not much of a protector — with whom she feels safe. This is where much of the drama in these stories occurs: rippling, under the surface, in that quiet desperation for safety. While the stories are seemingly quiet, they are all set against the backdrop of violence, from World War II to present-day fights for independence and confusing acts of terrorism.
Set in present-day England, the final story in the collection, “Milner Field,” features a narrator who is a father and his extremely close, innocent relationship with his daughter. Though he is divorced from her mother, and though part of his daughter’s leg was amputated after a bad accident, he is content. “My feet were cold. I was cold. Still I kept going. I was cold but happy,” the narrator tells us; it is the only story in which a character expresses such an emotion, and it’s clear that it’s the existence of family, even broken and damaged, that allows for it.
The stories in “The Mountain” are linked through key themes as well as a somewhat overemphasized use of shared images. The moon, a bicycle, a horse that is taken for a ghost or a living statue, company names with the word “Sunshine” in them: For close readers, these shared images and character backgrounds may be a little on the nose, a little forced. This is a small grievance, though, in what is ultimately a fantastic collection.
Masad is an Israeli American writer living in New York.
Simon & Schuster: 256 pp., $25