Mari Cohen (associate editor): I’ll admit I don’t always feel drawn to the short story as a form. I often find that, as if to preemptively concede to the limited space, contemporary authors go out of their way to make their characters inscrutable and distant. Lorrie Moore’s classic 1998 collection Birds of America, which I read over the last few weeks, never falls into this trap. Moore’s protagonists are wickedly funny and observant, sometimes self-destructive but usually self-aware. That said, the tone of the collection is dominated by melancholy: characters handle grief, heartbreak, and ennui in mostly generic towns across America. But the stories never collapse under their own emotional weight—Moore’s zany plots and piercing insights buoy each entry in the collection. In one late story, a woman copes with the disappointment of her adulterous husband and distant adult daughter by pouring her entire will to live into renovating and de-verminizing a new house—a monomaniacal desire whose pursuit inches closer and closer to violence: “Every house is a grave, thought Ruth. All that life-stealing fuss and preparation. Which made moving from a house a resurrection . . . and made moving to a house the darkest of follies and desires. At best it was a restlessness come falsely to rest.”
The finest story, “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” adopts a different mode than most of the others. The characters are nameless, referred to only as the Mother, the Husband, the Baby. It’s the rare entry in the book where the protagonist, the Mother, is a writer. Moore usually avoids the navel-gazing trap of making her characters novelists or journalists (they are standardized test writers, dancers, librarians, adjuncts, or housepainters instead.) Here, though, the protagonist-as-author-stand-in conceit is well-earned. “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” (which might be at least semi-autobiographical) is about a baby with cancer and his family’s initiation into the strange customs of the hospital’s “Ped Onc” ward. The vivid descriptions of the Baby, full of life, playing with a light switch, innocent to the cancer inside of him, make the story one of the most devastating I’ve ever read. But the narrative also asks us to doubt our submission to its power. The Husband keeps urging the Mother to “take notes” for an eventual writing project, because the family will need the money. The Mother protests, warning that she’s not capable of capturing the reality of what they’ve been through: “The trip and the story of the trip are always two different things. The narrator is the one who has stayed home, but then afterward, presses her mouth upon the traveler’s mouth, in order to make the mouth work, to make the mouth say, say, say. One cannot go to a place and speak of it; one cannot both see and say, not really.” The gap between relaying and experiencing cannot be bridged, and yet this narrator’s “slow, fake song” made of the “mouth’s eager devastation” is as tuneful as any I’ve heard.
Nathan Goldman (managing editor): This summer, any time I’ve hopped in the car alone for a quick drive, my go-to soundtrack has been the impeccable trio of songs that opens Girl with Fish, the new album by feeble little horse. (The Pittsburgh-based band took their aggressively twee name, styled without any capital letters, from a translation of Kafka’s The Castle.) Like fellow equine indie rockers Horsegirl, feeble little horse are obviously indebted to grunge and its noisy progenitors, but approach familiar moves—like pairing massive, overdriven guitars and disarmingly sweet vocals—with a lively confidence that makes the sound feel fresh. Indeed, it’s primarily the soaring, all-consuming distortion of the first three tracks that makes them so perfect for a ride in the sweltering heat. But there’s also something fittingly seasonal about the band’s mercurial pace, which alternates between languid and frenetic. As the jittery riffs of “Tin Man” fade into the slow plod of “Steamroller,” the blend of energy and lethargy feels distinctly summer-y.
If you have a bit more time to spare, the rest of Girl with Fish (only 26 minutes in full) is also excellent. While the remaining songs never quite match the immediacy of the opening tracks, they do compellingly expand the band’s sonic palette—the verses of “Slide,” which overlay acoustic guitar with glitchy electronics, are a highlight—and grow more structurally daring: “Pocket” completely undoes itself halfway through, while closer “Heavy Water” traverses an epic arc in just over two minutes. I was excited to see how the band pulled all of this off live at their Minneapolis show, scheduled for July. But sadly the band canceled the tour supporting the album before it began, citing health concerns. Here’s hoping they’re back in action by next summer.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): I don’t know when I last read a novel of such perfect sadness and beauty as Patrick deWitt’s The Librarianist. As a reader, I despise any form of redemption, so the premise initially struck me as trite and hackneyed: A retired librarian, living alone and with almost no friends, signs up to work at a senior citizens’ home, where he learns about himself. But I picked it up anyway, having found deWitt’s previous novel, French Exit, to be a magnificent work that freed its characters of the need to be nice (or even decent) and demonstrated a real sense of how the human heart works.
In The Librarianist, Bob Comet has spent his career at a library in Portland, Oregon, working the early shift so he can have the place to himself. He relished the silence and solitude: deWitt writes that his “favorite dream was that he was alone and it was early in the morning and he was setting up for the day, and all was peaceful and still and his shoes made no sound as he walked across the carpeting, an empty bus shushing past on the damp street.” The quiet interiority of an empty library—an intensification of the institution’s typical tranquility—functions as a metaphor for the life of this man who has hardly had a life at all. Indeed, Comet has barely moved or changed over the course of his 75 years. He lives alone in his childhood home, and while he was briefly married, his wife (the only woman he’d been with) promptly left him for his best friend (the only friend he’d ever had). As with French Exit, deWitt immediately finds the proper tone, the correct level of wistfulness and despair, to tell his tale, modulating it as the action dictates.
Though Comet’s entry into the world of the nursing home—where he starts volunteering by reading Edgar Allen Poe to the residents on Halloween, driving them all from the room—is treated as a stroke of chance, it’s also part of a search for human contact. When, almost halfway through the book, Comet makes a startling discovery about one of the seniors, deWitt uses the occasion to shift modes, giving us a lengthy flashback that takes us into the character’s past, and then another that goes back further still. These flashbacks illuminate each other and our protagonist in unexpected ways. We see that the Bob Comet of the present is the Bob Comet of the past; it’s unlikely that he could have been other than he is, or that anything could have turned out differently from the way it has.
Ultimately Comet does accept the need for others, and deWitt describes the redemptive realization almost apologetically, as if he knows this development is too familiar. But this, too, is part of the beauty of The Librarianist. After all, the strange paths we all take often lead to a conventional end.