Review: These creepy, electric stories will grab hold of you and never let go
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A woman escapes her kidnapper and walks into a diner, where a server rips the tape off her mouth and asks, “How can we help you?” The victim requests alcohol. Elsewhere, a man is on the loose slapping female strangers. “It’s humiliating to be slapped,” someone observes. “Just f— punch me in the face already.” Another woman is 37 and a mess, but at least she’s in Iceland: “I thought that if I couldn’t have a spouse to call or a permanent address or a dedicated vocation, I could at least see a volcano.”
Short-story collections get regrettably short shrift, even those by an author — in this case Laura van den Berg — equally acclaimed for stories (“The Isle of Youth”) and novels (“Find Me”). Critics and readers frequently write them off as grab-bags, in-between books. But a great story collection creates its own weather system, a gathering sense that we’ve entered a compelling and structured world. The terrain of Van den Berg’s difficult, beautiful and urgent new book, “I Hold a Wolf by the Ears,” is an ecosystem of weird and stirring places you’ll want to revisit, reconsider, maybe even take shelter in.
It’s easy to get going, because Van den Berg is such a master of setups — like the stunning first line from “Last Night,” the book’s first story: “I want to tell you about the night I got hit by a train and died. The thing is — it never happened.”
It’s one of a handful of pieces that inhabit a youthful brain, in this case a woman who was once institutionalized in rural Florida. She recalls being “angry they wanted me to live.” Yet the story isn’t so much about “them” as about the narrator as she looks back on her former self, as well as two other patients. “We had our whole lives in front of us — maybe. If we chose to. What power!” she declares. Van den Berg is so good at this kind of grim, inverted logic: “Because that’s when they let you go — not when you were well, but when you gave up the fight.”
In the super-creepy “Slumberland,” a former wedding photographer who now works in pet portraiture is traumatized by the loss of her son and spends much of her time surreptitiously shooting her neighborhood at night (including a secret tryst). Even the cops are sketched out by her hobby. “These are not illegal per se,” an officer says. “But they are troubling all the same.” To the narrator, though, this nighttime pursuit is a vocation, its product a body of art: “These photographs are my best work and no one will ever see them.”
Possessing some of Karen Russell’s spookiness and Otessa Moshfegh’s penchant for unsettling observations about the way we live now — personally incisive but alive with a kind of ambient political intelligence — Van den Berg feels like the writer we not only want but maybe need right now.
“Cult of Mary” is one of the two pieces that take us far afield of her usual haunts — the stranger suburbs and urban corners of America — this time on a package tour in Italy, where we meet the heartbreaking heroes of the story: a mother on what is almost certainly her final voyage and the daughter who has to put up with all her complaining. Oh, and there’s a really annoying guy.
“At every available opportunity he reminded us that he’d planned to take this trip with his wife, who was now three months dead, ensuring we all felt held hostage by obligatory sympathy.” It’s looking like a fiasco, because how could any trip, “no matter how splendid, bear up under the brutal weight of last?” But then a delightful surprise — in which the insufferable widower emerges from the woods, robbed of his shoes by a woman he’d hoped to pay for companionship — reveals a bit more of what really happened to his wife.
There is range here, particularly in characters and relationships: single people, mothers and daughters, loners, but also people engaged in the long dance of marriage. “The Pitch” is a story just about as succinct as possible on the institution. “One unfortunate side effect of marriage was knowing the mistakes a person was going to make before they actually made them,” a droll woman announces. But in Van den Berg’s world, the stakes are going to be much higher than who unloaded the dishwasher. “My husband,” she concludes darkly, regarding a photograph she’s studying, “had done something to that boy in the tree.”
Andrew Martin story collection “Cool for America” features troubled strivers shuttling between the elite northeast and rough, charming Montana.
Van den Berg is so consistently smart and kind, bracingly honest, keen about mental illness and crushing about everything from aging to evil that you might not be deluded in hoping that the usual order of literary fame could be reversed: that an author with respectable acclaim for her novels might earn wider recognition for a sneakily brilliant collection of stories.
In any case, the pieces get at you and linger, leaving bright traces even in their bleakest moments. “The big alone,” a man reflects in “Hill of Hell.” “That’s all any of us has in the end.” But in Van den Berg’s stories, each of us can, if briefly, claim a bit more than nothing.
I Hold a Wolf by the Ears
Laura van den Berg
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 224 pages, $26
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