‘What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going’ by Damion Searls

What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going

Damion Searls

Dalkey Archive Press: 102 pp., $12.95 paper

What do André Gide, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Yasushi Inoue, Vladimir Nabokov and Tommaso Landolfi have in common?

They are authors whose work inspired the five stories in Damion Searls’ debut collection, “What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going.” For each story, Searls draws from a specific work in each writer’s oeuvre: For example, “The Cubicles” is based on Hawthorne’s “The Custom-House”; “A Guide to San Francisco” is drawn from Nabokov’s “A Guide to Berlin.” One has been hard-pressed to find a book that brings together these obscure works from such disparate voices -- until now.

It’s a slender volume, and it needs to be, for each story carries the weight of three stories: the story in its original form, the story independent of its origin and how the new story differs from the source material and what that deviation says about both. And then there’s the manner in which the adaptations cohere and communicate with one another in ways their original authors never could have imagined.

Confused? You needn’t be. Searls’ writing is as sensual as it is sophisticated and displays none of the mustiness of a formal exercise: “Quail with Dr. Seuss topknots zigzagged crazily back and forth in front of the car. A three-story Victorian stood alone at the end of a field which sloped downward into the fog and gave an uncanny impression of space.” To enjoy Searls’ work, you needn’t know, for instance, that the story “Goldenchain” is derived from Inoue’s “Obasute,” a meandering tale that makes use of an old Japanese legend of a beautiful mountain where adult children bring their elderly parents to die -- a detail one would struggle to find in Searls’ version (though the story features a dying marriage, and the bed-and-breakfast where the couple stays is owned by a Mr. and Mrs. Inoue).

One of the more recognizable scenarios can be found in “The Cubicles,” the now-familiar (and borderline cliché) story of the dotcom boom and bust. Searls’ decision to base it on Hawthorne’s “The Custom-House” is a curious one. That Searls is poking fun at the ruinous fragility of bubble economies is so obvious it hardly needs to be said; but the question is not what is Searls saying about Hawthorne, but what is Hawthorne saying about us? Searls ups the ante in “Dialogue Between the Two Chief World Systems,” a comment on Landolfi’s “Dialogue of the Greater Systems,” which is a comment on Galileo’s “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.” It’s a giddily Borgesian narrative of science, religion, language and creative writing programs that links all of these stories together.

It should come as no surprise that Searls has translated numerous works of fiction and poetry. When we read a work in translation, we take the story as the work of the original author, but a translation differs from the ur-text in hundreds, if not thousands, of ways. Perhaps we shouldn’t view Searls as the “author” of these stories but as their interpreter, collaborator or even caretaker.

In the parlance of the postmodern classroom, there’s a lot to unpack here. Whether these stories constitute a literary leg-pull or a journey of discovery depends on one’s enjoyment of such discussions. Searls’ book is a potent reminder that we don’t always need to know what a story is doing or where it is going to enjoy the ride.

Ruland is the author of the story collection “Big Lonesome.”