Talk to me don’t talk to me
By Colin Herd.
Further Adventures in the Restless Universe, Dawn Raffel, Dzanc Books 2010
Further Adventures in the Restless Universe is a collection of twenty-one mysterious, staccato short stories from Dawn Raffel, the author of a very well-received previous collection entitled In the Year of Long Division (1995) and a novel Carrying the Body (2002). Those seven and eight year gaps between books mirror the spare and elliptical qualities that characterise Raffel’s prose in these fictions, where narrative focus is in a continuous process of shifting from one fragmentary observation to another and dialogue is often halted mid sentence and abruptly cut-off. Raffel’s stories take as their material family relationships, so there are stories about childhood, motherhood and the awkward, intense relation of adult sons and daughters to their parents and grandparents. Michael Kimball has said that “nobody is writing sentences like [Raffel is] writing sentences,” which sounds just like back-cover-ready puff, but after reading the book I know exactly what he means.
They are both of them, mother and daughter, inflamed by something miniscule, sneezing in tissues, covert sleeves, a hand.
The mother says “Bless.”
The daughter says “God.”
The daughter is young. She is darling to look at, the mother says. “If only,” the mother says.
“Stop it” the daughter says, the timbre dropped, as if some sort of gauntlet. “Mother,” she says.
“All I am saying,” the mother says.
This is the opening to a story called ‘North of the Middle,’ a few short pages depicting the hayfever-ridden holiday meet-up of a mother and daughter, in a country neither of them live in. As the mother puts it, “We’ll meet in the middle, north of the middle.” For the duration of the story they carry on like this, alternately finishing the other’s statements and ignoring what the other says. They simultaneously know each other instinctively and don’t know each other at all. Nothing in particular happens in the story – they talk at cross-purposes about gifts for each other, the possibility of the daughter marrying etc, and at the climax of the story, the mother ends up rifling through her handbag, to hand the daughter a parting gift of some money before getting on a plane on the way home. It’s a profoundly poignant and utterly realist portrait of parental relationships. Raffel’s technique of cutting short her characters’ dialogue feels startlingly natural, it makes you realise that this is what we do all the time, half-talking, quarter-listening to one another prattle on. And especially, our families. The phrases “the mother says” and “the daughter says” recur over and over but at the end of the story neither have really said anything at all.
In another story, ‘The Myth of Drowning,’ a man and woman in bed discuss a story of a woman drowning in relatively shallow water next to a crowded shore. The title refers to something the woman says: “That’s what the myth is: Drowning is noisy. It isn’t.” It’s a very un-noisy story, made up almost solely of dialogue, but under the surface their vaguely irritable discussion makes their relationship feel quietly and un-dramatically dysfunctional, and the woman’s description of the drowning woman seems to be a comment on her own life, too: “No-one could see her distress” she said. “They looked too late or else they didn’t look.”
At the heart of the collection is the story ‘The Air and its Relatives.’ A woman and her elderly, unwell father are driving a 100 mile trip. They discuss the light and the stars before gently spinning into more abstract discussion of refraction. The father remembers reading to his daughter from the book Further Adventures in the Restless Universe by the physicist Max Born, while the daughter sort of remembers too, but more uncertainly. Again, nothing really happens in the story. They eat food from a greasy paper bag and the daughter smashes a taillight, but every detail, every utterance seems weighed down with significance:
“You blinked,” my father says. “It was your own hesitation.”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“No matter,” he says, surveying the damage, “at least it was nothing more than a taillight. Things sometimes break.”
It’s hard to pin down what makes this short exchange seem so weighty and poignant, since it’s so matter-of-factly delivered. It follows a neat little cycle, the faint irritation of the father’s initial blame-reaction, followed up by the regret of the daughter and the gentle repentance of the father. It’s notable for the placidity and the exhaustedness of each character’s reactions.
The longer stories in the book can feel confusing as they develop in short, fragmented and episodic mini-chapters, mixing ephemeral thoughts with snippets of dialogue, observations and rarely if ever description of the world the characters inhabit. The second story in the collection ‘Her Purchase’ revolves around a mother and her young son Jerome. They drive, go to museums, chat and stay in a motel. Told in flashes, with ellipses and jumps from one to the next, it’s a heady, difficult-to-follow narrative, concluding in a powerful realisation when at the end of the story Jerome’s mother prays: “Wait” “Wait.” It’s only at this point that our readerly confusion and restlessness merges with the mother’s own fear for Jerome’s growing up too quickly, a sense that she too is caught up in the bewildering effect of this rapid, jump-cut, too-fast narrative, her son’s life.
The stories in Dawn Raffel’s Further Adventures in the Restless Universe are inventive explorations of family relationships in which not a lot happens and, in spite of all the dialogue, not a lot is actually said. In its very lack of drama though and the sparseness of her prose, what does happen and what is said is often quietly but surely heartbreaking.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Colin Herd lives and writes in Edinburgh. He is co-editor of Anything Anymore Anywhere. Poems have recently appeared in Shampoo, Streetcake, Velvet Mafia, Gutter and Pop Serial, and reviews in the blog of Chroma journal. His chapbook, Like, is published by Knives Forks and Spoons Press.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, January 24th, 2011.