Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Time for "Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day"

"Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day" is hands down, my favorite book of the year (and not likely to be supplanted). (Although I've enjoyed several others immensely: "Normally Special," "Amazing Adult Fantasy," "You Can Make Him Like You," and still need to read or finish reading several more, "Freight," "Giant Slugs" and "The Pale King"). (One dark horse candidate I've got many praising things to say about and I shall hopefully get to in the coming weeks is a poetry chapbook called "Piano Rats," which will be released by Curbside Splendor next month.)

But Loory's collection, returning to the subject at hand, is not only my favorite book of this year, but easily among my favorite books all time. That's to start with.

I've been avidly following Ben Loory's fiction for awhile now, since his story "The TV" appeared in The New Yorker (appears in greater length in "Stories for Nighttime") in spring 2010, I think (i.e. I think it was spring of that year that it appeared). It's hard not to be captivated in some way by how artfully he succeeds at expressing grand sprawling ideas and sentiments in austere, general terms. (For example, see just there? how I wrote "grandiosity" and "austere"? He would have succeeded at saying the same thing but artfully and with much more exact diction). And I should say, these terms seem austere and general but bloom very quickly into something greater, abstractly significant.

His collection is at times moving, challenging, detaching, philosophical, mythical, and downright funny. Loory is a master at saying just enough, enough to keep you scratching your head in wonderment, and plenty of just enough to allow room for your own personal interpretation. Like Raymond Carver, he's an author whose narrative vacancies have as much -- if not more -- meaning than the passages themselves. This isn't a matter of showing and not telling, or some old cliche about writing. Loory seems possessed by all the good muses that power fantastical fiction. His writing forces you to read and parse an enigma, which is both possible and impossible to solve. (See what I mean, yet?)

In my mind, this collection catapults him (via trebuchet, an ostensibly more powerful engine than the catapult) into the ranks of contemporaries like George Saunders, Amelia Gray, and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. It also puts him among classic authors like Franz Kafka, Daniil Kharms, and Donald Barthelme. All of which of is to say, Ben Loory is easily among my favorite authors, both living and dead. (Not to be morbid, right, but folks often make a distinction, in those exact terms, between the two -- the contemporary and the classic? Or am I just morbid? I suppose I could have put it as contemporary and classic but, ah, that becomes an issue of semantics I refuse to digress into...)

Let me see if I can explain why high praise such as lumping him in the category of the many venerable names above is both correct and due.

See first, in my opinion, the story "The Magic Pig." This story is astounding. Turns notions of belief and skepticism and outright disbelief on their respective heads. A kind of potent farce in the appearance of a magical pig, which shows itself at the inducement of a father who is belittling his daughter's new found faith. The father tells his daughter if god is real then a sign should manifest itself, and so immediately comes the pig, delivered ostensibly down from heaven. This is not enough for the father, who absconds with the pig and demands it show him another sign. I won't explain where the story goes from here. (It's short and fun to read, so read it.)

But I will say there is something of the history of faith and belief in the story, a kind of allegory in the man's conduct. So much of what we believe in contemporary religion (even respecting newer ones like Scientology) owe their roots to tales of ancient supernatural happenings. Things that historical record has no way of confirming absolutely and which require faith. One imagines even those so-called miracles, at the time of their occurrence, might have looked different to different witnesses, if they even ever truly occurred at all. (Bear in mind, it is very likely George Washington never, in his youth, cut down a cherry tree.)

Skeptics were probably eager for more, wishing to see more, and you can imagine a deity of the variety believed in by Western cultures would have grown tired of showing itself at every beck and call, knowing its creation could never be sated. That skeptics might never be able to believe enough for their own or anyone's liking. That such search for belief could easily become an obsession, and that obsession would only grow more potent and powerful with time and age, and the succession of each new generation, further set apart from the miracle's origin. And maybe that's not the point of life, searching for the truth of faith. Maybe, Loory seems to say, you'll find out when you die.

Choosing favorites pieces in "Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day" is like choosing favorite chocolates from a boxed assortment that contains none with pie-like cherry filling -- they're all so very, very good and tasty. But given no other alternative my tops of the collection are certainly the above delved into "The Magic Pig" and "The Book," "The Crown," "The Octopus," "Death and the Fruits of the Tree," "The Shield," "UFOl A Love Story" (Easily the most emotionally charged among the rest), "The Graveyard," and "Hadley." Plus, "The TV' -- which is no doubt the most enigmatic and challenging of the collection.

"Hadley," though, I'll speak a few words of and then I'll stop with this review. "Hadley" was in the best sense "Weekend at Bernie's" meets "The Shawshank Redemption." Hadley comes up missing in an evening bed count at an unnamed prison and the guards, not wanting to take blame for his disappearance, invent a new Hadley (who is, I think significantly, one of the few characters in this collection who has a proper noun for a name). What ensues is startlingly profound, given the superficially farcical circumstances of the narrative. Which is something I think you as a reader will greatly enjoy. I certainly did.

So go get "Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day" if you haven't already. It's one of those decisions I have faith you won't regret.