Monday, December 06, 2010

Vanishing and Other Stories by Deborah Willis

Once in awhile a writer comes along who is so good that it’s almost startling. Deborah Willis is one such writer, and I would be very surprised if she does not become a very well known and well respected author. Vanishing and Other Stories is her debut book; I would not have guessed this had I not read it on the cover.

All of the stories in this little book are quirky, edgy, sometimes even bordering on sinister, but all are convincing. Sometimes the lead character in a story is a girl or young woman, in others, it is a mature man, but no matter the gender or the age, one instantly believes in the legitimacy of the voice. Alice Munro (whom I consider the greatest living author) says of this fellow Canadian writer: “The emotional range and depth of these stories, the clarity and deftness, is astonishing.” Just so, and the astonishment continues through each story.

It’s always impossible to capture a book by reading a few key passages, but even more difficult (I think) when talking about short fiction. Nevertheless, let me try to describe a couple of the stories and to at least hint at their profundity. In one story, “Escape,” we are introduced to a middle-aged male research doctor whose wife has recently died after a four year struggle with illness. He has no real idea how to live, how to be. The lingering illness and eventual death of his wife has left him rudderless, almost faceless. He has no interest in old friends or his home, and very little even in his work; he spends a lot of his time simply driving in unfamiliar towns looking in on the lives of others. He has the sense that he is slowly disappearing, and is as unconcerned about this as about the rest of his life. Like so many characters in these stories, he is simply, almost painlessly, vanishing.

On one such outing, he drives into the parking lot of a casino in a small town that has very little other than the casino, decides to enter in order to use the urinal, and then drifts to a blackjack table and listlessly gambles for three hours. Though he is not really a gambler and has as little interest in winning as concern at losing, he becomes a regular customer—always seeking out the same table and the same blackjack dealer. “This is how he lived his life now; everything was accidental. Everything was inevitable.” He appreciates that no one there knows him, no one talks to him. “The staff deal with people the way they deal with money: with immunity, without judgment.”

Eventually, he becomes interested in a woman dealer, although interested is too strong a word. He finds her blandness, her indifference, oddly comforting, and in a sense he begins to stalk her. He follows her out into the parking lot when she goes for cigarette breaks, even follows her home one night, though with no real intentions of getting to know her. She refuses to give him her real name, although eventually she begins to talk with him on her breaks, tells him about a past life as a stage magician. She languidly performs card tricks for him, lets him find cards that she has secreted into his wallet or pockets. As he pressures her for her name, she asks his, and when he tells her it is Tom, she replies:
“I feel I’ve known you for my whole life Tom…It’s like we’ve been married for decades.”
“That’s probably not a good thing.”
“You must not be married…Or you’d know that marriage isn’t good or bad. You just fall into it, like any habit.”
Like all the stories in this collection, this one does not build up to some dramatic conclusion, some final exchange between the two that finally allows the man to escape his doldrums. And yet there is a kind of progress. She finally reveals her name, Mabel, and he goes back to his condo, cleans out his neglected fish tank, and seems about to emerge from his faceless state, to reenter life—a modest salvation perhaps, but a salvation of sorts.

My reader friends who claim to hate short stories because they feel somehow shortchanged or cheated, and the better the story, the greater the sense of fraud, will not, I fear, be cured by reading this book. As with Alice Munro, it seems that each story could as well have been a novel, and one that would have been wonderful to read. Fortunately, though I was once one of those who avoided short fiction, I now find myself tantalized by the very things that used to irritate or disappoint me. Turning a page to see how the story will continue, how the lives will sort themselves out, instead there is only a last page, a suggestive final line. And yet the story is better for that, better because there is no resolution. Like real life, there is no neat beginning, no resolution, no end. There is only life as it is lived. And sometimes, there is only sadness that one knows will continue. In the story “Sky Theatre,” a beautiful young girl, envied by her girl peers and sought after by the boys, is suddenly, unexpectedly, injured, paralyzed from the neck down. The lead character in this story, a not so pretty and not so popular girl is left to ponder permanence and change.
But suddenly we saw that life was not the still water we’d believed it to be. Mary Louise had been going about the same middle-class, suburban, privileged existence that we led—except that hers was even more privileged than ours. She must have had our same unthinking confidence in the future, until her destiny swerved like a canoe caught in a current. She’d once possessed something elusive and unmistakable, something beyond even beauty—maybe charisma, maybe grace—and that something had been wrenched from her. Fortune’s wheel had turned. I found this terrifying. I found it comforting.
And perhaps that’s where I should end; I found these stories to be terrifying; I found them to be comforting. I intend to read whatever this person writes.

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