March 2005

Melissa Walker

fiction

What You've Been Missing by Janet Desaulniers

In What You’ve Been Missing by Janet Desaulniers, we meet characters at crucial moments, moments that we know will determine their lives hereafter. Desaulniers captures the moment when you slip out of control, and having lost all context, you act. The next day, you find you’ve destroyed something you loved. A friendship, a career, a marriage. You’ve destroyed your own idea of who you are, no longer able to predict your own movements from one moment to the next.

The story “The Next Day” contains the moments surrounding the breaking point of a marriage. In just one afternoon, all of the underlying questions and resentments leading up to this day are implied, and on what seems like a calm afternoon, the husband takes a single action -- horrifying and bewildering even to himself -- and an argument explodes. In the moments after, their understandings of each other and their marriage have changed. The story “Where We All Should Have Been” tells of a teenaged girl becoming an alcoholic, at the point in early addiction when it seems to her family that she could make different choices, but all of the steps she takes lead her deeper into chaos and self-destruction. The story captures beautifully the paradox of her in-between state and its inevitable outcome.

The book’s cover art, Roger Brown’s painting “It’s a Wonderful Lie,” depicts before and after scenes: a married couple, and divorce court; a muscle man, and a man lying in a hospital bed connected to an IV drip. Each scene is broken by a dividing line. This is the moment that Desaulniers’s stories depict, the moment when one thing becomes something else. A marriage breaks, a girl becomes a drunk, a child discovers his independence.

These stories are about the places where we brush up against the world outside of our control. Children die, marriages break up, and addictions grow. Desaulniers argues that almost everything is outside of our reach, that our choices are in fact quite narrow.

She captures the simplicity of this seeming labyrinth of action and will. We can act in the world, but the real choices we have are few because all humans, including ourselves, are to a great extent, unknowable forces. But in the acceptance of this situation, it becomes possible if not to know oneself then to at least enact oneself, to live out oneself, and by looking at the resulting evidence, to know.

In the space between one state and another, we and these characters can move in many directions. But free-will is not the wide endless expanse we like to imagine, but instead merely the question of whether to go with or against who we actually are, as confusing and inconvenient as that person may be.

What You’ve Been Missing offers stories of people paying attention to the internal reverberations of the world outside. Listening at the darkness of this unknown space at our core, finding that there is indeed an order to the world, but discovering that this order is its own mystery.

What You’ve Been Missing by Janet Desaulniers
University of Iowa Press
ISBN: 087745910X
125 pages