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Pickle Me This

August 21, 2010

Alone With You by Marisa Silver

The very best pieces in Marisa Silver’s Alone With You are each expansive enough, containing more story than most novels do, so that the volume isn’t really slim; it only looks that way. Silver’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, she’s a winner of the O. Henry Prize, and has been much acclaimed for her novel The God of War. (It’s worth noting also that the New York Times review of this book is sets a benchmark for reviews we all should aspire to, and also that I don’t very many American short story collections, but now I digress…)

From the story “Night Train to Frankfurt”: “The fact of being was sometimes an unbearable mess and what was hoped for in life was so rarely reached. The shortfall between those two things was so much more fumbling and base than anything Helen had ever imagined.” And that shortfall, with all its fumbling, marks the development of most of these stories. They open up wide in the way that Alice Munro’s do, a decade passing in a paragraph break, and the narrative manages to never miss a beat.

In “Pond”, the mother of a disabled adult child confront her daughter’s pregnancy, her husband hovering in the background of the narrative only to be brought to the foreground at the story’s conclusion, as he’s forced to confront what his relationship with his glorious grandson implies about his feelings for his imperfect daughter. In “Three Girls”, the penultimate moment in a single night telescopes a young girl into the future and a vision of her older sister: “In that moment, Connie had the idea that she wouldn’t know Jean when they were older, that when Jean left the family, she would leave Connie too, because Connie would remind her of things she didn’t want to remember.”

Helen, from “Night Train to Frankfurt” accompanies her mother on a last-ditch attempt to cure her cancer, and their whole relationship, with all its ambivalence and love, is encapsulated in that train compartment. “The Visitor” tells of Candy, a nurse in a Veteran’s Hospital, whose patient has lost his legs and one arm: “It was sad. Of course it was sad. But she didn’t feel sad. Sad was what people said they were in the face of tragedies as serious as suicide bombings or as minor as a lost earring. It as a word that people used to tidy up and put the problem out of sight.”

Marisa Silver, however, does not do tidiness or sentimentality. Her stories are sad, yes, but they contain everything (and unfaithful men in particular), and something is glorious in all their messiness, in the deliberate perfection of their tangle.

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