January 2010

Michael Schaub


What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us: Stories by Laura van den Berg

If you read enough articles about the state of literature and the publishing industry, you probably (a) drink heavily, out of necessity, and (b) have encountered at least a dozen "think" pieces about the death of the short story. These articles are written, chiefly, by longtime beat journalists who are contractually obligated to proclaim the death of something at least once a year, and who also, in all likelihood, drink heavily, out of necessity. Sure, you could throw some names at them -- Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, T. C. Boyle, Adam Haslett -- but if you did, they'd probably just run away. Not just because they'd be embarrassed, but because they probably have a deadline coming up, for another "think" piece on the future of publishing in the age of the Kindle or something. "The death of the short story" is the book journalism equivalent of "The death of rock and roll" or "The death of the documentary" -- writers who are constantly predicting it should either be ignored or told to fuck off, depending on how confrontational you are.

So before the first journalist of 2010 rewrites that article, let's all pause to consider What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, the debut short story collection from young author Laura van den Berg. It's a beautiful, moving, and accomplished collection -- if the short story really is dead, nobody told van den Berg. Thank God.

Van den Berg's characters are mainly young women; her themes are mainly loss and the anticipation of loss. She's not a showy author; she exhibits a distaste for melodrama, even when writing stories that would send other authors to the thesaurus looking for florid synonyms for every possible negative emotion. Van den Berg has the somewhat resigned, wry sense of humor of Lorrie Moore, and the acute, almost minimalist eye of Alice Munro, but her stories aren't similar to these authors' styles -- she's very much her own writer. I was reminded, slightly, of Julie Orringer (the brilliant How to Breathe Underwater), but there's not a real stylistic connection -- it's more of a thematic one. And like Orringer, van den Berg realizes that emotions are better rendered with the fine point of subtlety than the broad strokes of mawkish sentimentality.

That kind of subtlety is apparent in the collection's first story, "Where We Must Be," which follows Jean, a semi-failed actress working at a recreation park, and her relationship with a young man afflicted with cancer. It would be hard for a lesser writer not to inject heavy-handed pathos in every line, given the themes (Failure! Disappointment! Family difficulties! Cancer!), but van den Berg's treatment is honest, unsentimental and deeply felt at the same time. Read Jean contemplating her attraction to Jimmy, her ailing lover:

It's occurred to me that part of his appeal is the guarantee, as much as anything can be guaranteed, that he will love me and only me for the rest of his life. He will die loving me. By default, of course -- he doesn't have the time to find someone else. But if I could grant him more years, enough time to make it likely that he would abandon me for another woman, I would do it. I said this to him one night, when we were in the backyard, underneath the tree, telling the truth for once. Then you do love me after all, he replied, a smile spreading across his hollowed face. And I wondered if he might be right.
Few authors -- few artists of any kind -- have the courage to do what van den Berg does here, letting a character admit her doubts, own up to what she suspects might be her flaws. Love is uncertain by its nature; that might seem obvious (or completely wrong, depending on the reader), but van den Berg captures that uncertainty in a way I've never quite read before. The last two paragraphs of this story, which take place on a California lake, are some of the most remarkable lines I've read in years. In this story, van den Berg comes closer to explaining love, whatever that may be, than most authors twice her age.

In "We Are Calling to Offer You a Fabulous Life," van den Berg tells the story of Joyce, a clerk in a New York store that sells Balinese masks. (If the idea of that store seems far-fetched, I can assure you it's not; in the mid-sized Western city where I live, there are no fewer than four Tibetan prayer flag stores and two Scottish gift shops.) Joyce is having an affair with the store's owner, a somewhat jerky married man named Darnel. Darnel breaks up with Joyce when he sees his pregnant wife's ultrasound; Joyce responds by stealing a mask from his store and taking it to Tompkins Square Park. She stands in front of the fountain, holding the mask, and in that moment -- perfectly rendered by van den Berg -- the reader sees her regret, her desperation. Van den Berg is a master at these small moments in time, these gestures laden with emotional gravity, but free from histrionics or overly obvious symbolism.

The centerpiece of this collection is the title story, which focuses on a teenage girl's trip to Madagascar with her mother, a restless author and biologist. Celia, the girl, is a swimmer, and she has a talent for reciting random lists -- people who have successfully swum the English Channel, places with the highest pollution levels, and, perfectly, "all the famous scientists who've committed suicide... (a)nd how they did it." As Celia's mother and her friend, a zoologist, go searching for lemurs, Celia stays behind, spending her days swimming, wandering around, trying to figure out what to do next. Van den Berg captures the restlessness of both mother and daughter, the quiet panic inherent in both of them. Both characters are wistful, imperfect, hurt. "Strangeness is everywhere and everything makes you tired in the end," Celia's mother tells her. It's a sentiment van den Berg illustrates brilliantly, not just in this story, but in every other one in this excellent collection.

Van den Berg's stories here vary wildly by location -- one follows a young woman working in a Massachusetts bookstore; another takes place in Inverness, among Loch Ness Monster hunters and their friends and family. But the themes are universal; they carry over from story to story. It's a remarkably cohesive collection; it's also remarkably sad and hopeful at the same time. Van den Berg writes with such assurance, such delicacy, that it's easy to believe there's nothing she can't do. She proves that the short story isn't dead, that it's possible to write vitally and energetically and with real emotion in a format that some writers are, apparently, ready to give up on. We're lucky that she hasn't; this amazing collection is one of the best books of 2009, and van den Berg is one of the best new authors to come along in years and years.

What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us: Stories by Laura van den Berg
Dzanc Books
ISBN: 0976717778
208 Pages