July 2004

Randy Schaub

fiction

In the Electric Eden by Nick Arvin

Although not necessary at all, many writers (and, I imagine, publishers) today feel more comfortable preventing short fiction in a sort of “themed package." Nick Arvin gives us ten stories in this collection, which hold hands loosely across a variety of shared ideas. Memory, technology and engineering are touchstones for several of his tales. The image of a person as seen by his family is explored in nearly every case.

Most of the stories deal with memories triggered by objects, and are very fine. In the title story, for example, a tacky elephant foot umbrella stand serves as the basis for relating a tragic bit of Americana -- a mostly true story about the dawn of modern technology. In “Telescope," a brief parenthetical experiment of a story, a mother dives through onion-like layers of memory upon finding one of her son’s neglected old possessions, and must decide if the memories are worth keeping around. “Radio Ads," another bit of nostalgia, skillfully relates the generally disappointing nature of growing up. “Take Your Child to Work," one of my favorites, is a refreshing change of tone for Arvin. The narrator is truly individualized -- an overly intellectual engineer, a failed husband, and a sincere and well-meaning father -- he lets us observe a day with his daughter at work.

In “Commemorating," the third (and best) story, Arvin gives us a young man who believes he has the ability to predict the future (but only in retrospect) -- a curse which serves only to magnify regret rather than prevent it. Believing that a military war game he happened to witness while on vacation portends something disastrous, the hero loses his wife after an argument about his powers of divination. In the years that follow every omen becomes merely a nagging reminder of his failure:

… I did not see a coin dropped, did not pass a house with darkened windows, did not watch the fading of a sunset, did not experience any of the minutia of life without wondering if it might be a sign -- of what happened to Lita, where she had gone, whether she was alive or dead. Sometimes the clear waters of a lake held exactly the color of her eyes, and I was happy for a moment…

The protagonist builds a long distance friendship with a man met during the ill fated vacation, a relationship built around a false life where our hero’s wife is still around, where they have children and in-laws to fight over, where the yearly commemoration of her departure is instead a happy occasion, the day when two friends chanced to meet. Arvin’s writing is crisp and fast in this story, and there is no wasted effort. The recurring imagery of Marines landing on a beach in Florida serves as a reminder not only of the narrator’s bleak reality, but of the happy dream he continues to live, and serves to enhance the satisfying pictorial quality of the story itself.

Elsewhere, Arvin is less successful. In “Electric Fence," a pair of sisters meander thru a network of memories and emotions that have no real nexus. Most of the prose arrives in the form of bland declaration:

The male voice, Elizabeth realized, came from the television. The volume was up quite high. Unimpressed by Allison’s panic, she stared at the rectangle of colored light. She was here visiting the old house, Allison’s house now, and she had been deeply asleep in her old room—now the study. Allison’s husband was away, which had been a relief to Elizabeth.

This, boring, loopy reflection continues for 25 or so more pages, and is further aggravated by jumps in time and place that aren’t well delineated. We are given very little to experience, and have to push through the story to a forgettable conclusion and a half-baked moral message.

Still, mistakes like these are minimal, and the collection is successful, overall. Arvin is low-risk reading -- his mostly traditional stories will appeal to a wide audience, and will enrich the reader with a few odd facts and a good dose of emotional satisfaction. There is no treacle in his stories, nor is there cruel and unrelenting torture of his characters -- in the end we find that Arvin’s most important recurring theme is simply solid narration and honesty.

In the Electric Eden by Nick Arvin
Penguin
ISBN: 0142002569
304 Pages