There’s a lot to smile at in The Bigness of the World, Lori Ostlund’s Flannery O’Conner Award-winning collection—but there aren’t a lot of jokes. In fact, over the course of a dozen stories, Ostlund presents all kinds of suffering: death, self-mutilation, jail, child abuse, poverty, and an overabundance of breakups. As the title suggests, Bigness is full of characters confronted with the unmapped and unexpected, with newness and unthinkable difference; even as Ostlund’s characters wish for stillness, shit happens. As the narrator tells us at the end of the title story, “the familiar terrain of our childhood would soon become a vast, unmarked landscape.”
In depicting this unpredictable world, Ostlund is forced to leave behind the short story’s generic punch-line structure. While her stories often end with surprises, these endings, happily, never really seem to be the point. In one story, for instance, a character dies—but Ostlund ends not with some poetic meditation on the sadness of death, but with a table full of tourists, people who didn’t know him very well, who have a drink, make a few jokes, then change the subject. In two other stories, parents depart; the children, as they must, get on with being children. As Auden suggested in “Musée des Beaux Artes,” and The Bigness of the World repeats, in moments of suffering “someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” In Ostlund’s fictional worlds, there are always other people—with their own stories, their own plots and themes—who can’t be expected to understand or even care about the central character’s sadness.
But this openness to difference, to other characters and other lives, is not as easy as it seems. To be sure, for a collection concerned with otherness and newness, Bigness contains an improbable number of Minnesotan lesbians travelling overseas, or teaching, or teaching overseas. Ostlund, though, doesn’t pretend that we always give a shit about others—while is full of difference, this is not the celebrated difference of the harmonious postcolonial soup. Ostlund’s characters are generally repulsed by the cultures they face: A hotel room in Belize has “the smell of raw sewage,” because “the toilet stood shamelessly out in the open.” In Malaysia, a wounded man sits outside the couple’s hotel, “groaning day and night, no doubt from the pain caused by the gaping wound that ran from one of his nipples to his navel.” On a bus in Morocco, three young kids are made to lie beneath their parents seats; while two Minnesotan lesbian teachers watch, the children are soaked by vomit that flows from the front of the bus. Ostlund’s characters are disgusted with other bodies, as well as the abhorrent and uncivilized aspects of other cultures.
In this way, Ostlund rubbishes all the usual clichés about the wonders of travel. In one story, set in Southeast Asia, a group of Americans drink only with other Americans, because, “The truth of it is, they are all tired of dealing with non-Americans, tired of having to explain themselves and of having to work so hard to understand what others are explaining to them.” In Morocco, two women are disappointed by the desert because it is exactly what they expected. In Belize, another pair visits a community of Mennonites, to find that they are not entirely welcome. In the Malaysia of “Bed Death,” the characters’ apartment building is used for suicide attempts.
As dark as all this seems, Ostlund also provides consistently quirky, deadpan stories. “And Down We Went,” a story of nostalgia, loneliness and breakups, opens with, “I have been defecated on three times in my life.” Another breakup story, “Upon Completion of Baldness,” begins, “My girlfriend returned from Hong Kong bald, thoroughly bald, the bumps and veins of her skull rising up in relief, as neat and stark as the stitching on a baseball.” Later in that story, we read of “Mr. Matthews, who had gone on to post several signs in the teachers’ lounge announcing that he was interested in acquiring used Tupperware, the word used underlined thrice.” In “Nobody Walks to the Mennonites,” we are given the story of “Sara and Sarah, who, because they were visual people, did not think of themselves as having the same name.”
This antimony of the quirky and the somber, which runs throughout the collection, is introduced in the title story. We find, on the one hand, the narrator’s very serious mother and father, a bank vice president and a “PR Czar.” On the other hand, we have the narrator’s babysitter, Ilsa, an imaginative, constantly crying, Chinese opera-imitating, toothbrush-borrowing lunatic. Crazy people, of course, are useful, because they help us perpetuate the myth that there is an us, a community, a common sense, into which they don’t fit. In Ostlund’s stories, though, the pervading theme is the failure of community, a failure to understand or empathize with the lives of others. Such failures are most interesting and most tragic not between cultures, but between lovers—Bigness is full of women who share beds but little else. Ostlund masters the sadness of breakups—not the melodrama, but the empty inevitability of doors closing between people. “For at each turn,” she writes, “the people we hold close elude us, living their other lives, the lives that we can never know.” Relationships, she suggests, are profoundly easy to fuck up.
Writing-wise, Ostlund never loses control. Characters, too, never engage in dramatic battles, or throw temper tantrums, or wax lyrical. Instead they wax analytic: They give reasons for their behavior, they interpret their lives. These stories are tragedies without tragic heroes. Whatever her characters feel, whatever passions are roiling beneath the surface, Ostlund expertly leaves alone. But beneath her theme of unintended offense, of unbridgeable difference, there is always the threat of disruption, unreason, the return of the repressed. It is this threat that gives these careful, precise stories their force.