January 2013

Sessily Watt

fiction

Rescuers of Skydivers Search Among the Clouds by Patrick Lawler

Rescuers of Skydivers Search Among the Clouds has the one-two punch of an evocative title and a beautiful cover of a rowboat pulling people from a hot air balloon's water landing. It's a cover sure to draw the eye of anyone, like me, intrigued by the out-of-the-ordinary and the not-quite-predictable, though these days both of those seem to have become marketing categories rather than descriptions. Nonetheless, the cover is worth a few sentences of admiration.

The novel inside is composed of brief sections that range in length from a sentence to a few pages, each one titled in bold and containing the narrator's memories of an undisclosed time from childhood. The memories are composed of brief summaries of events, snippets of dialogue, and lists of book titles and the wording on signs. The place is never specified but has the familiarity of a suburb or small town, where the mayor and the neighbors are as important as the mother, father, and siblings who reappear in every section. That familiarity, though, is leavened by absurd and fantastical events that are balanced between the literal and metaphorical. On the first page, the mayor is dissatisfied with the street names, so they change between the names of assassinated presidents, types of berries, and emotions. A few paragraphs later, the narrator says, "It was impossible to tell whether we lived in the sky or lived in the earth." The connection between this and the street names or the description of the father's employment as a beekeeper follows a kind of dream logic -- it resonates without being fully explained.

"That was the year when," the narrator says, pinning time down with events, though as the phrase is repeated over and over, time slips free of its context. Yet the sections are not entirely atemporal. Story arcs are formed, though primarily from the changing relationships between the narrator and various characters rather than through events. For example, the narrator's love interest tells him "Whatever" when he first confesses his love to her and is referred to throughout by modifications of "whatever" that seem to indicate changes in how she treats him: "Meanwhile Girl," "Therefore Girl," "Since Girl," and so on. Other characters appear and disappear and appear again at various places in the text, including the narrator's brother, grandmother, and father. Though loosely tied to specific events, these disappearances are firmly rooted in emotion. "After my grandfather died, my grandmother became a window," the narrator says, evoking loss, death, and love all together.

The feeling of atemporality comes in part from these memories dancing across time rather than settling into it. Memories are presented in summary -- "That was the year we dreamed in lists" -- as often as they are presented as events -- "In school we studied how to change the world, but I didn't do that well on the exam" -- and even the events exist for no more than a sentence or a paragraph. They blow away in a puff of laughter or sadness, only to return pages later.

Rescuers of Skydivers Search Among the Clouds is about nostalgia, but it also plays with a sense that the calm appearance of the past -- the nuclear family, the suburb or small town, the carefree childhood -- masks chaos. The novel begins with an epigraph from Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." Le Guin's short story describes Omelas as a fantastically happy place, not without nuance and subtlety, but nevertheless happy in way we can't quite understand. Their processions and festivals are described, as are the people, including the line that appears at the beginning of Rescuers of Skydivers: "A child of nine or ten sits at the edge of the crowd, alone, playing on a wooden flute." This line is part of the impossible happiness of the place, but immediately after comes the foundation of Omelas's happiness: a child, kept wretched and alone in the basement of one of the buildings. The child in the basement and the child playing the flute are set up as necessary opposites of each other. The happiness of the flute-playing child is dependent on the misery of the child in the basement.

The narrator, too, plays a flute and is surrounded by both control and chaos. Apocalypse hovers around the corner, but so does the sense that "Something joyful sat above us." Images and experiences fracture and then repeat, exhausting the reader with repetition at first and then building momentum. Lines contain double meanings, moving easily between jokes and regret. And the skydivers might never come down.

Rescuers of Skydivers Search Among the Clouds by Patrick Lawler
Fiction Collective 2
ISBN: 978-1573661683
160 pages