November 2010

Jennifer Taylor


Alone with You: Stories by Marisa Silver

Marisa Silver is the type of writer who understands the bottomless depths of loneliness, along with our inherent resistance to change. Her writing dwells in the still, silent places of her characters’ lives with astonishing clarity. Aptly named, Alone With You is a stunning collection of eight short stories that will haunt the reader long after the last page.

In “Temporary,” Vivian is vaguely aware of the looming shadow of impermanence over her entire life. From the job she found through a temporary agency to her home and roommate, her life is on the precipice of change. “Vivian and Shelly lived in downtown Los Angeles, in an industrial space that belonged, nominally, to a ribbon factory whose warehouse was attached.”

And although Vivian would like to emulate Shelly’s carefree style, she yearns for something more permanent. Vivian works at an adoption agency inside a supply closet transcribing taped interviews with potential parents. Her primary job qualification is that she was adopted. But that doesn’t mean she is qualified to assist with the adoptions, or decide who might be good parents. Because she would like to have an impact on someone’s life, Vivian attempts to include her opinion on the couples, but is told insight isn’t part of her job. Vivian clings to the most dependable relationship she’s known, which is the one her adoptive parents shared before her mother’s death.

In “The Visitor,” Candy is an emotionless VA nurse’s aide quietly coping with multiple levels of loss. In her workplace, she is cognizant of her patients' physical suffering. Yet she wonders if dealing with that type of pain would be preferable to her internal strife. “She knew about collateral damage, knew that the injuries people saw were never the gravest.”

At home, she lives with her maternal grandmother, Marjorie, and her mother’s ghost. Losing people is what Candy has known since childhood, when her junkie mother would occasionally appear, only to steal something. Being away was what she did best. Now, her ghost wakes Marjorie at night by turning on the water faucet as a reminder that she is still there, and needs to be dealt with instead of forgotten. Unlike the ghost, Candy’s life is spent hiding from emotions.

The newest patient under her care, nicknamed El Lobo, is missing most of his body. “The new boy was three-quarters gone. Both legs from below the knee and the left arm at the shoulder.” After tending to his needs, Candy begins to provoke the silent man in a desperate attempt to get a reaction from him.

“Night Train to Frankfurt” follows the journey of ailing Dorothy and her daughter Helen, as they go in search of an experimental medical treatment in Germany. “They were going to boil Dorothy’s blood. Take it out, heat it, put it back in. The cancer would be gone. Well, that wasn’t exactly it.”

During the trek, Helen thinks about clinic’s advertising, and how often she herself has purchased items because of promising panaceas, while her frugal mother never bought into that type of thing -- until now. Silver’s wry commentary on consumerism is deft -- would Dorothy have wanted to try the treatment if the clinic’s collateral material hadn’t included euphemisms and showed healthy patients? Would seeing actual suffering sell?

The journey provides Helen with an excellent opportunity to reflect on the relationship with her mother and how the life-long barriers they established are now readjusting. “This breaking down of the customary distance that had existed between mother and daughter for decades made it difficult for Helen to view her mother as a living thing rather than as a collection of body parts and functions.”

Dorothy has always been the more assured of the two, the one who has always been self-reliant. Her mother wouldn’t have continued to be with a man who cheated like Helen’s boyfriend does, and yet Dorothy is willing to try a risky treatment with a questionable premise. Helen has to figure out the answer to an agonizing question -- how can she be a stronger person when the stronger person has always been her mother?

Silver’s lyrical writing is unflinchingly honest. Although her themes are familiar, her approach to how her protagonists deal with their pasts, and their attempts to move forward, is refreshingly unique and utterly realistic.

Alone With You: Stories by Marisa Silver
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 1416590293
176 Pages