:: Article

No States, Only the Sky

By David Winters.

Dylan Nice, Other Kinds, Short Flight / Long Drive Books, 2012

A young man leaves home—a rough, rural town in the mountains. He reaches a suburban world of relative wealth, where he meets women who remain remote from him. He can’t adapt, can’t go back, can’t square where he is with where he’s from. The nine stories in Dylan Nice’s debut collection each cut into the same spectrum of experience, the same essential estrangement. But although the lives of Nice’s narrators are narrow, they’re only as narrow as our own. Unreturned phonecalls, impeded intimacies, homesickness for homes we’ve outgrown: for all of us, these fierce longings are familiar. For me, Other Kinds is a book about human finitude. It encompasses not only its narrators’ nostalgia and alienation, but also mine, maybe yours. And in this, the book is borne aloft, absorbing the bracing scale of the earth—what its author has called “the size of the world and how it thrills me.”

One of Nice’s narrators is “a believer in transit,” another an “expert in awayness.” All are aware that the distances between places parallel those between people. “We flew to Los Angeles without talking,” a narrator remarks of himself and his girlfriend after an argument. “I imagined somewhere below me the Grand Canyon or the desert and its rock.” In these stories, every landscape is a mental landscape; selfhood itself is spatial. The relation between place and personality is revealed in another narrator’s self-description:

“I am named after the place I’m from. It’s a lot of fog and smokestacks. Trailers parked in mud and dog shit. The roads circle places you don’t want to be.”

To be named after a place is to take on its traits. So, smoke, shit and circling roads speak of this speaker’s psychological state, his spirit. Throughout Other Kinds, the inside is identified with the outside. In one story, an injured hand is described as “the damaged part of myself.” Plainly, this poetic slippage of body and soul is already latent in ordinary language; in our ambiguous uses of personal pronouns. Perhaps such practices are the proper terrain of philosophy. Yet unlike explicitly philosophical literature, Nice’s fictions are not fabrications: the mysteries they express are engrained in the detail of real life.

Being alive, embodied, a person in a place, means being both “thrown” and “fallen,” as Heidegger has it. Thrown into the world, we’re always falling away from ourselves. We are, writes Heidegger, “homeless.” We exist in the distance between where we’ve been and where we will be: life is delimited by this distance. In the collection’s second story, Thin Enough to Break, Nice’s narrator compares “the great nothingness of God” to “the great everythingness of me.” Like us, the characters in Other Kinds are ensnared in their low, lonely everythingness. They know the cognitive closure of consciousness can’t be escaped. Nonetheless, they long to connect with other kinds of consciousness.

So, intersubjectivity is figured as infinite distance. Furthermore, this distance is gendered. The abyss between human beings is articulated between girls and boys (“I hated that there were boys and there were girls,” says the narrator of We’ll Both Feel Better.) Sex is then an unsolvable problem: no one can truly close the space between two separate bodies. “I tried to touch her. I didn’t put my hands on her.” Later, “he stopped wanting her but kept trying to want her.” Such divisions are as much social as sexual: one character is paralysed because “my people were loggers and truck drivers,” whereas “hers hung inspirational sayings on walls.” Finally though, the gulf is far more fundamental. “The girl lay there and breathed,” we read, “and he knew she wasn’t thinking the things he did.” Although I can follow another’s thoughts, I can’t think them. The other always withdraws from thought: I am homeless where he or she is at home. These stories aren’t simply about star-crossed lovers, or lovers “from other worlds.” In Other Kinds, the familiar formula is universalised: for each other, all lovers are star-crossed, or are as far off as stars, as obscure.

Stars are of course surrounded by space, and in Nice’s stories space is never negative. Rather, it rushes to the forefront. As with the weather, space rests and then stirs into motion, no longer a ground but a figure, a manifest force. “The wind would be blowing in from the space all around us,” notes the narrator of Wet Leaves. “I’d put my back to it, arch my brow, and watch her squint and blink against the gusts.” In Nice as in no other writer I know, language is alive to vastness: to how the “flatness” of a landscape can “change the shape of the sky,” so that we seem to stand “at the spot where the world begins to get round.” Other Kinds contains expanses so immense they “make motion nearly irrelevant”—environments where there’s “nothing on the horizon, nothing in the distance to mark time.”

Writing about Plato’s Sophist, Alain Badiou analyses life in terms of five axioms: “being, motion, stillness, sameness, and the other.” For me at least, the core elements of Other Kinds are comparable: a boy, a girl, a place, another place, all separated by space. Close and far, light and dark, wind and sun, warmth and cold: a world. This is why Nice’s depictions of movement through space mean much more than they say. Each is, in its way, an epiphany: one of those moments of world-disclosure we know only once or twice in our lives. Every so often, an everyday scene shifts its aspect, pivoting from the prosaic to the essential. In passing, a single perception embodies the whole of human existence:

“Big trucks were coming by bright and fast and disappearing into the flatness. The light at the edge of the sky was orange and thick with twilight. The gusts pulled at my clothes and I could see the men inside, their faces dark while they sat still and drove fast. They found work, driving to some place they didn’t know and then back toward the last thing they remembered being good.”

Do any of us do anything more? If we don’t, might describing the miles between us, the lengths that we go to, uncover what we have in common? In one sense, Nice’s stories stage a world before which we can only fall silent. This world is made up of ineffable facts, as one character claims—“things that are true that can’t be argued.” So, a narrator stands awestruck in front of an ice floe, another before a burning building. And we as readers stand with them, transfixed by suburban streetlights, the smell of rain, clouds in the sky or blood from a cut. Each of these stories swells to a point at which the world simply stills us.

Conversely though, if we listen closely, sometimes the stillness tells other stories. There are two types of epiphany. In the first, the world is illuminated, but only for a lone observer. In the second, the world illuminates who we’re with. Although other kinds can’t be known, they can be encountered, lit up in lonely silence, like us. As long as this lasts, alone as each other, we know we’re no longer alone. In Wet Leaves, a quarreling couple are calmed when the world comes between them—once more, as weather, as falling snow: “the question was quieted by the flakes of snow that began to fall and melt in her hair.” White and mute and miraculous, the world sheds light on a person’s presence. Suddenly she’s beyond all questions: she is the question, the source of a sublime ethical pressure. In It’s Never a Little While, two interlocutors sit in a pool of light. One tells the other a story, which might be “a lie.”  His lie, his story, all stories end in the light of whoever sits silently listening. Again, there are truths that can’t be argued:

“The girl was totally illuminated—what she wanted was so visible her skin seemed to suggest that what she wanted would never go away.”

In Other Kinds, to contemplate space, the land, the sky, is to confront our homelessness. Crucially though, this confrontation calls us away from solipsism, towards those we share the world with. By the end we’re left, like Nice’s narrators, uprooted, enraptured, and twice as alive. In the collection’s last story, Flat Land, a character tries to return to his home in the mountains. He had “left to sort out what was me and what wasn’t,” but he finds that his home is not as he left it, and neither is he. Leaving again, he is nowhere, no one. However, in this he is open not only to his “everythingness,” but to his nothingness, and to everything else beyond it:

“The car moved fast in all that space, past the stumps of corn that blinked by in perfect rhythms. I hit the flat land again. It seemed I was part of some big purpose until the size of what was out there exhausted me. Eventually there were no states, there was only the sky that never got any closer and me moving through places I could not stay.”

David Winters is a literary critic and a co-editor at 3:AM. He has written for the Times Literary SupplementBookforum, the Los Angeles Review of Books and others. He is currently writing a book about literary theory. Links to his work are at Why Not Burn Books?

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 1st, 2012.