June 2007

Andrea Chmielewski

fiction

Like Blood in Water by Yuriy Tarnawsky

Though Like Blood in Water, Yuriy Tarnawsky’s collection of five “mini novels,” is a somewhat slim 192 pages, the stories themselves often seem as though they are folded, accordion-style, so that they expand and contract with the act of reading. It is this kind of shifting nature that leads me to believe that I could read the collection 10 times and it would mean something different each time. Some elements that seemed of the utmost importance upon my first reading might not even receive a second glance later. And so, after closing Like Blood in Water for the first time, I was struck by the idea that the book in my hands, the actual printed words, was much less important than my experience reading it.

Like Blood in Water is an incredibly complex, beautiful, and frustrating work. It is less about story than craft, a fact that I found alternately exciting and confounding. While Tarnawsky chooses to call his stories mini novels, I think a better term might be collages, or jazz improvisations, or splatter paintings.

The collection starts off relatively easy with the work “Screaming,” the most straightforward of Tarnawsky’s tales. Straightforward is a relative term, though. Like each of the mini novels, “Screaming” is broken into a series of interrelated sections, sometimes using poetry or even scripted dialogue. Piecing the sections together, choosing what to show and what to keep hidden, is what Tarnawsky does so well; by writing only the minimum, we as readers are forced to help him create the story, weaving it together and filling in the blanks.

“Screaming” concerns itself with a man named Rilke Roark and a one-armed woman he meets named Alba, whom we are told get married and, really, are exceptional only in that they scream for transcendental purposes. One need only read a small section of “Screaming,” though, to recognize Tarnawsky’s enormous talent as a writer, and to understand that no basic plot synopsis could do his writing justice: “The sky above is also brown, tinged by the light reflecting from below. It is very low -- so low Roark has to stand with his head bent down. It stretches flat all the way to the horizon where there is only a thin opening left between it and the earth like the slot in a pinball machine. Someone on the other side is feeding shiny new quarters of light into it one by one, over and over again.”

With each successive mini novel, the collection becomes more complex, more enigmatic. Certain themes are constantly popping up: dreaming, identity, loss, doppelgangers, the apocalypse. There are moments of brilliance and moments of frustration and opaque meaning. Towards the end of reading Like Blood in Water, as I thumbed forward through the last story and realized my journey would be over in a few pages, I felt a little like I was finally seeing the end of a long, bloody battle. This was not because the book was not enjoyable, but because it is rare that I have to do so much intellectual work while reading a collection of stories just to get to the end of it.

I feel as though I’ve yet to form any solid opinion on Like Blood in Water. Even after a few close readings, it seems I have barely scratched the surface, barely identified all of the complexities and ambiguities and interconnections that Tarnawsky worked into his collection. And so perhaps all there really is to say about Like Blood in Water is that, if you choose to pick it up, prepare for it to seem heavier than it looks -- there is nothing diminutive about these mini novels.

Like Blood in Water by Yuriy Tarnawsky
ISBN-13: 978-1057366-135-5
Fiction Collective 2
192 pages