Hal Niedzviecki’s new collection, Look Down, This is Where it Must Have Happened, asks us what is essential to narrative.
Canadian writer Hal Niedzviecki made his mark as a cultural critic with Hello, I’m Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity and The Peep Diaries: How We’re Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors, both published by City Lights. Now Niedzviecki’s story collection, Look Down, This is Where it Must Have Happened, affords readers an opportunity to apply his social criticism to fictional worlds. In his hands, being wonky has never been more fun.
The collection encompasses a range of literary genres, from magical to domestic realism, from the absurdity of a fetus quoting statistics to dialogue so fresh you’ll look around to see who’s talking. At no point in the title story are we told “a guy named Bradley” has killed himself; but when one character phones another to ask, “Did you hear about Bradley?” we know we’re in the realm of prurient fascination with another’s tragedy. Because Niedzviecki eschews quotation marks, it’s not always possible to tell who—if anyone—is speaking out loud. We see Bradley’s friend Mickers walk onto a bridge, accompanied by an unnamed first-person narrator. The hortatory final sentence floats in air on feelings of loss, voyeurism, and ennui: “Look down, this is where it must have happened.”
“Special Topic: Terrorism,” begins: “The bat thudded against the window. Peter felt it—broken glass in his gut—though the window didn’t break. … Laurie poked the window with the bat. The whole thing fell apart.” Yes, there are not any small winged rodents; Peter and Laurie are college students fulfilling an assignment. When Peter’s team presents a slide show documenting their destruction of an SUV, the professor announces that, “in this class we don’t deal with … uh … actualities.” Too bad one of their teammates, a girl named Star, has already sprayed paint and glue into the face of a man returning to his vehicle. Meanwhile—in the real/virtual world—12,349 people view the slides Peter foolishly uploaded to YouTube; soon the police are sniffing around his apartment and questioning his roommates.
Niedzviecki prompts readers to ask: What is essential? How do we know what we know? His withholding of such narrative staples as full names and physical descriptions proves to be an effective literary technique, except when his reticence is unintentionally revealing of a moral blind spot. In “Punk Rock Role Model,” unconfirmed hints that the unnamed narrator has raped his girlfriend, Sheils, lend the narrator an aura of darkness without shaping a reader’s understanding of him. There’s plenty of outré humor: One night, after the narrator sniffs glue and passes out in a puddle of vomit, he is kicked, hugged, and sung to by a moribund punk rock star who is naked except for a pair of cowboy boots. But it’s disconcerting to see rape reduced from a character-defining deed to the level of stagecraft, comparable to the dry-ice “fog” of arena rock.
In The Peep Diaries, Niedzviecki posits that successful personal blogs show “how your blog persona feels at a specific moment,” while Twitter is about “deriving a sense of community and commonality through sharing the details—your details or other people’s details.” This could be a recipe for a great short story, as evidenced by the companion pieces “Displacement” and “Sometime Next Sunrise.”
Shlomo, the hero of “Displacement,” and his mother—Bubby—left Russia for a city we can assume is Montreal. Many years have since passed, and when we meet Shlomo his mother has died “alone in front of the television.” The frequent, abrupt transitions characteristic of Niedzviecki’s style evoke the lasting presence of traumatic events in a survivor’s mind. We jump from Shlomo urging his wife to sample his culinary inventions to Shlomo’s memory of visiting his mom when his kids were little—“Buddha Bubby hovering over the kitchen table, shabbos candles shrinking into themselves.” Then comes a succinct and deeply moving description of life in a displaced persons camp:
All spring we waited. The days were empty, nothing to do but line up for bread and soup. Enough for everyone. The ones who were going to die had all died. I felt my arms thicken and my legs no longer trembled when I ran. Nobody spoke of the past. There could not have been a past.
The story includes a surreal account of six-year-old Shlomo’s visit to a village at the bottom of a river, and it ends with Shlomo at a meeting of formerly displaced persons in Washington, D.C. When an elderly woman asks, “Weren’t you the one? The little boy who ran away?” the emotional impact is devastating.
“Sometime Next Sunrise” presents a man much like Shlomo (here called “The Dad”) as seen by his thirty-three-year-old son. The narrator and his girlfriend Rainy are taking a beach vacation with the narrator’s parents. Not much happens, really. Mom runs interference when The Dad wants everyone to play a round of putt-putt golf and their son says no way. There’s a heart-wrenching and hilarious father-son tequila bar scene. A moment when the narrator confesses to wanting Rainy completely. Along with the details, we get a sense of life’s mystery lurking just beyond our vision.
Look Down, This is Where it Must Have Happened reveals the super powers of story telling for the digital age—or any age.